August 4, 2016
Thailand’s military government will hold a referendum on Sunday to seek approval for a new constitution, much as the last junta did nine years ago. Given the government’s control over the lead-up to the vote, a positive result should be a foregone conclusion, much as in 2007. But this time the referendum could backfire on the military.
The government deployed all its messengers to urge Thais to vote for the new constitution, from village headmen to broadcast media. The Referendum Act outlaws any overt opposition, making public debate impossible.
The biggest incentive to vote yes may be the fear of more upheaval. If the constitution is approved, elections will be held in late 2017 or early 2018, and Thailand will return to a semblance of normality. A no vote means the country once again faces political uncertainty. The constitution-drafting timetable would start again, unless the junta decides to adopt one of Thailand’s many previous charters.
Constitutional blackmail worked last time. When a similar cast of generals staged a coup in September 2006 and duly came up with a constitution and referendum in August 2007, they argued that a rejection of the proposed charter would only prolong military rule. The charter passed by a 57% approval rate on the same percentage of voter turnout.
But many Thais have drawn a lesson from the fact that the generals staged yet another coup in 2014. Voting for the charter in 2007 allowed a general election to take place, but it only led to the same sort of political polarization, street protests and another putsch. Meanwhile, the current junta leader and prime minister, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, has made clear he will retain considerable power even under an elected government.
This referendum, like the one in 2007, is inevitably a verdict on the coup. This time Thailand has not had an election in more than five years and has been ruled by the military for more than two. Discontent seems to be running higher.
It’s true that discontent is difficult to gauge accurately. In December the government released the result of an opinion poll showing that 99.3% of Thais were satisfied with its performance. Because of the Referendum Act, Thais are understandably reluctant to tell pollsters that they will vote no.
But recent polls have consistently shown a high number of “undecideds.” Those who are ostensibly on the fence are likely to come down firmly on the rejection side Sunday. The higher the turnout, the more likely a no vote, as disaffected voters seek to register their disapproval.
In 2007, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party didn’t oppose the new constitution because it expected to regain power after an election. The past decade suggests the military won’t allow that to happen again. Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister deposed in 2014 and Mr. Thaksin’s sister, is opposed to the constitution, along with many of her “red shirt” supporters.
About half of Thailand’s main opposition Democrat Party, including its leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, is against the draft charter. The rest of the Democrats are more supportive of Suthep Thaugsuban, the former deputy leader who led street rallies against the Yingluck government and paved the way for the coup.
The two most popular parties oppose the charter because its provisions are stacked in favor of long-term military supervision of Thai politics. The military’s appointees, rather than elected representatives, will hold the real power.
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The draft charter’s 279 articles hobble elected representatives with all kinds of “checks,” but offer little balance. It envisages a paternalistic state that contradicts other clauses on decentralization and community rights.
The overall aim is to create coalition governments that are fragile and fractious. Power would shift to the judiciary and a Senate appointed by the junta.
To be sure, the 21 junta-appointed charter drafters had good intentions to combat corruption and screen out unscrupulous politicians. But top-down rules can’t create the kind of good society many Thais aspire to. Only bottom-up processes based on merit and integrity can keep corruption at bay.
The referendum contains a related question of whether senators along with lower-house representatives should have the right to select the prime minister. That makes it possible that Gen. Prayut or a junta proxy could lead the post-election government.
Either way, Thailand’s military government intends to maintain power for the foreseeable future. Charter-drafting efforts and election promises are designed to appease domestic dissent and international pressure. But the real aim for the military will be to run out the clock on Thailand’s royal transition.
Many Thais implicitly understand this delicate situation even as they disagree with the military’s constitutional plans. They would likely settle for a more democratic interim with basic rights and freedoms, currently suppressed under junta rule, while this process takes place.
Mr. Thitinan teaches at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and directs its Institute of Security and International Studies.