Thailand’s Constitutional Referendum: A Hobson’s Choice

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Thailand’s Constitutional Referendum: A Hobson’s Choice

A climate of fear all but ensures the upcoming vote will be far from an expression of popular will.

Thailand’s Constitutional Referendum: A Hobson’s Choice
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

When Thailand votes on August 7 to pass or reject a new constitution, voters will head to the polls knowing that the country’s two dominant political parties are opposed to the military-sponsored draft’s content and spirit. While the ruling junta is actively promoting the draft charter’s hybrid vision of a military-guided democracy, punitive bans imposed on organized opposition, public debate, and free expression before the vote have engendered a climate of fear and raised doubts that the referendum will be a credible expression of the popular will.

Unlike a draft the ruling National Council for Peace and Order scripted with one hand and rejected with the other last September, thereby delaying the junta’s roadmap to new elections and attenuating military rule into 2017, prime minister and coup-maker General Prayut Chan-o-cha seems firmly committed to the latest draft’s passage. The apparent tactical shift comes amid signs of budding grass roots dissent, unrelenting international calls for a return to democracy and an intensifying power struggle between royalist camps amid rising concerns for 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ailing health.

The charter aims to bestow the NCPO sweeping powers over future elected governments. Both top sidelined political parties, the Democrats and Peua Thai, have carped about articles that prioritize a military 20-year development plan that would inhibit the implementation of their own policies. Criticism has centered on a provision that would allow the NCPO to handpick a 250-member Senate, with six seats reserved for armed forces chiefs. A second referendum question, inserted by the junta at the eleventh hour, will ask voters to decide if the Senate should in certain deadlock scenarios help to select the premier, opening the way for a potential non-elected leader.

A vote for the pro-military charter would shore up Prayut’s political legitimacy and his junta’s legality, both currently in short supply. While Prayut’s coup was initially popular in certain quarters for restoring stability after months of debilitating and violent street protests, two years on there are indications his roughshod style, including extensive use of the unlimited powers vested in the interim charter’s Article 44, is beginning to chafe influential sections of Bangkok’s middle and elite classes. The junta’s poor rights record, meanwhile, was on glaring international display this week in Geneva during a Universal Periodic Review session at the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The NCPO would doubtless interpret a “yes” vote as a type of popular mandate that could be used to deflect international criticism of its legitimacy and rule. Diplomats already suspect in such a scenario the passage of organic laws to govern general elections will be a drawn-out rerun of the constitution drafting process designed to hold power until the royal succession is secure. There is also speculation that the laws would require political parties to dissolve and re-register under new names and that the electorally dominant Peua Thai will be forced to fracture into a clutch of smaller parties, a political configuration that would potentially allow the NCPO to employ divide-and-rule tactics from above.

Despite the ban against vote “no” campaigns, punishable by ten year prison sentences if criticism is deemed as incitement, political party stalwarts are not-so-subtly stumping against the charter’s passage. Former foreign minister and senior Democrat member Kasit Piromya railed publicly against the draft charter as “illiberal” and “unacceptable” at a May 10 press conference at Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents Club. Kasit said charter chapters delineating state responsibilities, state policies and a nominated Senate would empower the bureaucracy to steer the country while serving as a mandatory “strait jacket” on elected politicians.

Pongthep Thepkanjana, a former Peua Thai deputy premier, told the same audience that powers proposed for the Senate, including over independent agency and high court judge appointments, would lead to an “imbalance of power” favoring military over democratic interests. He also highlighted various high hurdle requirements that would make it nearly impossible for an elected government to amend the charter without the NCPO’s support. He suggested future problems could arise if the referendum is not free and fair, and the population fails to accept the charter as its own–as it did with the checking and balancing 1997 “people’s constitution” abrogated after the 2006 coup.

The NCPO has allowed high-level political party critiques and stinging media op-eds that fall short of campaigning against the charter’s passage. Authorities have been less forgiving towards activists who have overtly called for a “no” vote and criticized junta leaders, witnessed in a handful of arrests for critical comments posted on Facebook. That suppression will likely intensify if politicians and anti-junta activists agitate against the referendum’s integrity beyond the curbs on association and expression. The NCPO has not responded yet to activist calls to allow the European Union to independently monitor the vote for potential electoral fraud.

While the NCPO clearly desires for the draft to pass, the risk of rejection is limited. Prayut has intimated that if the draft is voted down, he will unilaterally enact another charter, believed to be an amended version of the regressive interim constitution now in place, without a popular vote. Whether Prayut upholds his vow to stage new elections by mid-2017 regardless of the referendum’s outcome will likely turn on the political temperature after the vote and the status of the royal succession. “What choice do we have?” asks Pongthep while weighing post-referendum scenarios. “All we can do is trust that General Prayut will honor his word.”