How to start the post-poll healing process
Thus spoke the people. We have all been anxiously awaiting the verdict of the people for the past several weeks. Despite a less-than-free electoral environment leading up to the constitutional referendum last Sunday, the result shows a large enough margin for us to have some confidence that this represents the "general will" of the true depository of our national sovereignty, the people of Thailand.
Yet, the winning side, particularly those in power, should not take this approval as a blanket endorsement of their political legitimacy. The poll result is rather a reminder that the people would like to see a smooth political transition that the junta has promised for so long.
A total of 27,623,126 people took part in the democratic ritual, out of 50,585,118 eligible voters. Voter turnout was 54.6% of eligible voters. The "yes" votes were 61.4%, and the "no" votes represented 38.6% of the votes cast. That is a reasonable majority of both the turnout and the winning proposition.
But with deeper analysis, the fragility of the support base is quite alarming. Only one third, 33.5%, of all eligible voters approved the draft constitution. The other 66.5% did not bother to participate, rejected it outright or rendered their ballots invalid in one way or another. Since the requirement for the passage was only a simple majority of the votes cast, it begs the question as to what would be the outcome had the process been more open and transparent with full engagement in a fuller debate prior to the referendum. Yet, despite such a handicap, with some conservative level of confidence it is safe to say the general preference of the people has been heard.
The best news is the process of gauging that national preference went smoothly and with generally accepted legitimacy. It was a moment of national unity and civility rarely seen in the past several years. This is particularly true when many of those who voted against the draft announced they respected the general will of the people. The challenge is how the people's verdict should be used to heal the protracted ills the country has been afflicted with to the point of eroding the national elan vital or vital strength.
The important point for national deliberation now is how to make the majority sensitive to the alienation of the minority around the country (ie, the 45% who did not take part, and the 38% who delivered clear "no" votes, plus the illegitimate votes of 869,043, whose true intentions will never be known). The result is not something for the winning coalition to crow about with too much confidence, but neither is it a situation where the losing opposition should hold the country hostage.
Viewed from this perspective, the nation has not quite recovered from the political divisions of the recent past. While a sign of recovery is perceptible from around the country, the very peripheral North, Northeast and the far South are still showing a strong reservation about following the national political rhythm. What is a wise political course of action from this point forward?
Decent politics can deliver a nation out of its predicament. The draft constitution endorsed in the national parley on Sunday, and what is to be amended, is not a perfectly democratic founding document by historical and theoretical measures. There are many sticking points that will continue to generate concerns in the foreseeable future, for example, the institutionalisation of the army's influence in Thai politics through the appointed Senate and the less explicit protection of the rights of Thai citizens, among others.
These issues will need to be raised by all those concerned. But the logical question the nation will have to ask now is: "Can a decent and efficient coalition government emerge from this less than perfect constitution?" For that will be the ultimate test of the potency and efficacy of the referendum exercise. Such a government, if possible, will have the enormous responsibility of pushing for further reforms, including finding a way to fix the ills that may result from this approved constitution itself.
Going forward, most Thais would like to see a nation at peace with itself and capable of managing its serious political disputes on the plain of politics, by the processes, mechanisms, frameworks and institutions that have been enshrined in the new Basic Law. Conflicts will not spill over on to the streets, confrontations will be resolved before they break out into violence, and the national agenda will be decided with the rule of law and the participation of the people.
That will require a more inclusive politics than in the past. Given the serious economic and social inequity that has afflicted the country in the past several decades, more and more people have suffered from exclusion. The road ahead must be paved with the goodwill and compassion to broaden the middle path. The divisive politics of the past will not work, as it has not worked during the tumultuous years since 2005-2006.
The Aug 7 referendum offers a new beginning for the Thai polity. The "yes" side must be humbled by the fact that 44% of the population are still holding their judgement and 38% clearly rejected the draft proposition. And the "holdouts", for whatever reason, will have to comply with the will of the majority with more enlightened strategies and policies that would take their minority views into account for whatever decisions they want to make, and policies they want to implement, in the name of the sovereign people of Thailand.
Politics is not just a pursuit of collective interests and the exclusion of other collective sentiments and the rejection of other persuasions. A true and noble political framework will always seek to broaden the space for more people to exercise their rights and liberty in a fair and equitable manner with the participation and benefit of all and at the exclusion and exploitation of none.
It appears the "no" vote camp has generally issued a dignified concession since referendum day evening. They have set a new standard and claimed a moral high ground rarely seen in Thai politics. All have pledged to accept and abide by the general will of the people, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have called it. But they will to monitor the realisation of all the pledges made to the nation in the draft constitution.
The next 480 days until the next general elections will be crucial. From the drafting of the four related bills, and their deliberation of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), how much space will be open for debate by the population will be decisive in efforts to bridge the national divide.
Whatever roadmap or national strategies are being drafted, a space for the public to debate their contributions must be kept open. It will serve as a curtain raiser for the hoped for "new politics" to come under the framework of the new constitution. A repetition of the lack of free political space leading up to the just-concluded referendum will likely plunge Thai politics back into an abyss and will delegitimise whatever political legitimacy the junta gained from the event last Sunday.
If the "yes" camp exercises its victory with compassion and humility, play by the rules with a sincere commitment to the cardinal principle that in a democracy power is limited, and the majority won is not a licence for national concession, we shall truly embark on a new chapter of our national journey.
All sides have the best interests of the country at heart. That is something we all should remind ourselves about for any hope of further unity to occur. The challenge is how to unleash that patriotic sentiment to make Thailand strong again. To be standing tall and dignified in the community of nations, the people, all of our people, must feel belonged, secured, fair, satisfied with the present and confident of their future.
The winning side should have enough foresight to seize the moral high ground and extend a hand of friendship and respect. Inspired by the Thai wisdom of "the defeated shall remain in dignity, the victorious shall not be tempted by illusion of grandiosity", it will be wise to exercise the power that has just been legitimised with utmost care.
That unified national strength is not far beyond the reach of the sovereign people of Thailand. They are only waiting for the opportunity to participate and contribute to the reclamation of their national greatness.
They have enjoyed that status in the past. There is no reason why they could not reclaim it.
Surin Pitsuwan, a Former Foreign Minister and a Former Secretary-General of ASEAN, is president of the Future Innovative Thailand Institute (FIT).
Former Asean secretary-general
Surin Pitsuwan is president of the Future Innovative Thailand Institute (Fit), a former Asean secretary-general, and a former foreign minister of Thailand.