Referendum is a mess
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has reversed an earlier pledge to stay clear of the debate on the national referendum on the draft constitution. After several weeks of insisting he would let the Election Commission handle the pre-vote phase, the prime minister has now stepped into the fray. His reason for raising the political stakes is the red shirts' attempts to open "fraud centres" that would monitor any attempt to cheat in the referendum. Gen Prayut said the centres would not be tolerated.
There is no doubt the political arm of the red shirts is behind the centres. The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) clearly believes it has found a way to resume political hostilities, and is going all out. To open fraud offices in every province is a high-profile strategy and clearly a challenge to Gen Prayut and his National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). The military regime calls it an obvious political movement; the UDD disingenuously claims otherwise.
The tentative date for the referendum is Aug 7, although the Constitutional Court could delay or cancel it. The Election Commission is nominally in charge, but at best, its efforts to promote the referendum and ensure a large turnout have been lacking. Millions of Thais on the EC's mailing list for voter information have yet to receive any information. The Referendum Act, which the government approved and the court is considering, bars any discussion of the draft charter unless approved by the EC -- which has approved nothing so far.
The prime minister's sudden warning last weekend that the military will not put up with UDD politicking is understandable. Gen Prayut and -- if some polls, social media and media analysts have any credibility -- much of the public, have no stomach for combative politics being dragged into the referendum campaign. Less comprehensible, however, is why the EC is effectively inhibiting any campaign at all, even simple information campaigns.
The EC's ban on partisan statements about the draft constitution was poorly considered. It is being enforced even more inscrutably. This is why the Constitutional Court judges have agreed to try to sort out the mess the EC has brought. It is arguable that if the Referendum Act was comprehensible, and if enforcement were fair, the UDD-military showdown would not be occurring.
There is more than a bit of truth to the UDD's overall concern about cheating in the referendum. The Referendum Act, and Gen Prayut, have decreed the first ban in Thai history on poll monitors. Until right now, this country and every regime, including the worst military dictators, have welcome or at least allowed domestic and foreign groups to observe election campaigns, as well as activities at the polls and vote-counting centres. No one believes the UDD can be a neutral fraud investigator. But few voters or observers accept the need for the banning of monitors.
The very structure of the planned referendum, along with the vague and even intimidating control by the EC, is causing suspicion. The UDD has politicised the referendum campaign for now, but it should be noted that the government and the EC cast the first stone by trying to restrict natural public discussion of a vitally important national issue.
However the government, the NCPO and the EC handle the UDD's obstinacy, they should consider how to enlarge the public's participation in the referendum campaign. The vote on the draft charter won't be fair unless there are regional and national debates, with all opinions considered.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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