Vote prospects in Thailand's long transition
Thailand's second-ever referendum on its second consecutive military-inspired constitution in 10 years should be a foregone conclusion. The government of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha that seized power in May 2014 has deployed all instruments and organs of the state from village headmen and upcountry teachers to the entire bureaucratic apparatus and official media propaganda to ensure the charter's passage. The Referendum Act, a law that effectively prohibits open and inclusive debate and public discussion, has been enacted for good measure to keep the draft constitution on course. Yet what appears like a one-way state-sponsored campaign for referendum approval may boomerang into a rejection owing to several factors.
First, unlike the previous coup and charter episode in 2006-07, constitutional blackmail may not work this time. When a similar cast of junta leaders staged a putsch in September 2006 and duly came up with a constitution and referendum in August 2007, their argument at the time was that the charter's rejection would be tantamount to prolonging military rule. To see the back of that junta, whose junior generals now head the current National Council for Peace and Order, the electorate would have to give its nod. The charter passed by a 57% approval rate on the same percentage of voter turnout.
But many in the electorate have found that the generals did not go away. Ultimately, voting for the charter in 2007 allowed a general election to take place, but it only led to the same sort of political polarisation, street protests and another putsch. Approving the charter has not sent the military back to the barracks.
Many voters will see a dubious correlation between a referendum's approval and elected civilian rule. In fact, Prime Minister Prayut has made it loud and clear that he is here to stay irrespective of the referendum's results.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
Second, Thailand has not had a vote in more than five years. This referendum, like its precursor in 2007, is inevitably a verdict on the putsch and more than two years of military government. When given a chance for personal feedback in the polling booth, voters may turn against the charter in much higher numbers than anticipated. There is an outside chance of a convincing rejection as recent polls have consistently shown a considerable number in the "undecided" category. In a politically repressed environment under a junta-led government, with the law and official propaganda against open dissent and dialogue, people may ostensibly sit on the fence only to come down firmly on the No side when the time comes.
Turnout will also be crucial. The higher the turnout, the likelier a rejection will come through because state agencies and the levers of influence and control will be able to organise pro-charter votes only up to a point. Even a similar turnout rate of 57% as in the first referendum may result in a rejection because of lessons learned and accumulated opposition that has not had a say for so long.
Third, the main political parties are against the draft charter. The Pheu Thai party of ousted former prime ministers Thaksin (2001-06) and Yingluck (2011-2014) Shinawatra is unsurprisingly arrayed against the charter, unlike in 2007 when they let it sail through with the aim of regaining power after an election. Along with Pheu Thai will be many upcountry "red shirts" who have opposed the twin coups for disenfranchising them.
Equally important, Thailand's main opposition Democrat Party, with its myriad "yellow-shirt" supporters who despise the Shinawatra clan for political usurpation and corruption is roughly split against the draft charter, led by its leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. The remaining Democrat columns, with their bases in the south and Bangkok, are more supportive of powerful former Democrat stalwart, Suthep Thaugsuban, who led street rallies against the Yingluck government and paved the way for the coup. That the Shinawatras and Democrat parties are against the charter increases the likelihood of a rejection. They see the charter provisions as stacked against them in favour of long-term military supervision of Thai politics through appointees rather than elected representatives.
Finally, the draft charter is flawed and unbalanced. Its 279 articles are like a set menu to keep down elected representatives with all kinds of "checks" but little balance, and a manual for good governance with requirements for interpretive morality and ethics. It offers prescriptions for the state's role in many facets of society and therefore envisages a paternalistic state that contradicts other clauses on decentralisation and community rights. With peculiar articles about how to conduct diplomacy and maintain a principle of "non-interference" vis-à-vis the outside world, along with mixed-member apportionment, the overall aim is to tinker with the rules to end up with elected coalition governments that are unwieldy and fractious, with a shift in power and authority to the judiciary and the Senate, the latter under the NCPO's management and control.
To be sure, the 21 junta-appointed charter drafters had good intentions to combat corruption and screen out unscrupulous politicians but top-down rules without organic learning-by-doing cannot make the kind of good society many Thais have aspired to. Only time, patience and a bottom-up trial-and-error process based on merit and integrity can reduce and keep corruption at bay.
If the referendum is approved, an election timetable would kick in for polls to take place in late 2017 or early 2018, thereby requiring the ruling generals to exercise their power through the appointed Senate after another year of the interim period. As the referendum contains a related question of whether senators along with lower house MPs should have the right to select the prime minister, it is plausible that Gen Prayut or another NCPO proxy could lead the post-election government. A referendum failure would reset the constitution-drafting timetable and further delay elections unless the junta bites the bullet by amending and promulgating one of Thailand's many previous charters.
Either way, the 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 military's real aim will be to bide its time to run out the clock on Thailand's protracted transition. Many Thais implicitly and subconsciously understand the delicate situation even while disagreeing about it. This is partly why politicians have not clamoured for immediate polls like in the past, and partly why there has been no major uprising to upend what is essentially a military dictatorship. In view of these exigent circumstances, what many Thais want is a more democratic interim period with basic rights and fundamental freedoms while this process unfolds.