Less than one month before Thailand’s highly anticipated August 7 constitutional referendum, a widening clampdown on “vote no” activities has galvanized further dissent and upped the risk of post-poll instability. Hard curbs on free expression, imposed in a draconian Referendum Act that carries potential 10-year prison penalties for misrepresenting the draft constitution, criticizing its content, or disrupting the vote, have simultaneously raised doubts about the credibility and integrity of the military-steered democratic process.
If passed, the constitution will bestow the military broad powers over future elected governments, including fast-track means to remove elected politicians deemed as corrupt or wayward. The country’s top two sidelined political parties, the Democrats and Peua Thai, have both condemned provisions in the draft, including articles that would hamstring their ability to implement policies that run counter to coup-installed Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s 20-year economic development plan.
A provision that would allow the military to sustain its outsized political role in a handpicked 250-member Senate, with six seats reserved for armed forces chiefs, has sparked the most criticism. A second referendum question will ask voters to decide if an appointed Senate should in certain scenarios help to select the premier, opening the way for a potential non-elected leader. The provision could open the way for Prayut or Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan to lead a future elected coalition government in the name of national unity.
While the Democrats have publicly carped about the draft, Peua Thai and its affiliated United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), or “Red Shirt,” pressure group have actively campaigned against it, reviving a movement that has been mostly quiescent since the 2014 coup. Peua Thai politicians, including former ministers, challenged the junta’s ban on criticism in mid-June by simultaneously posting why they would vote down the charter on their Facebook pages, with several labeling the draft as “undemocratic” and “unacceptable.”
None of the prominent politicians were arrested or charged for their comments. Authorities, however, responded more firmly to UDD plans to set up referendum monitoring centers across the country to check for electoral fraud on polling day. Police shuttered the first center created in Bangkok and blocked others from taking root in the provinces. A group of 19 UDD leaders were later summoned by police for potential violations of the Referendum Act, though it isn’t apparent that the junta-appointed Election Commission intends to pursue charges.
While junta-UDD jousting has been par for the post-coup course, the regime seems especially spooked that unaffiliated anti-junta-cum-anti-charter groups will gain grassroots traction. This week’s arrest and temporary detention of four political activists with the so-called New Democracy Movement on charges of possessing “vote no” leaflets marked the latest suppression of the ostensibly student-led group. They were traveling to lend support to another group of activists who face charges for establishing an electoral fraud-monitoring center.
The arrest of a local Prachatai news agency reporter and raid of its Bangkok bureau on suspicions of affiliation with the activist group, meanwhile, has spurred fears that journalists who report on “vote no” activities or allegations of electoral fraud may be targeted under the Referendum Act. While the mainstream print media has until now been largely free to report critically on the draft’s content and the junta’s suppression of anti-charter activities, censorship pressures are rising coincident with the political temperature.
To be sure, the junta has shown a measure of restraint in not jailing opposition politicians and protest leaders on Referendum Act violations. But the stage is set for a showdown through a galvanized and reorganized political opposition if there are widespread perceptions of vote-rigging in favor of the charter. Any instability on polling day would likely be met with military force, a scenario that would further undermine the poll’s credibility and elongate the junta’s current roadmap for holding new elections in late 2017 in the name of restoring order.
A local university-conducted poll in late June found that most voters are still undecided on whether to pass or reject the draft. Unlike a previous military-drafted charter passed in 2007, where voters essentially voted for a quick return to democracy, Peua Thai has weighed in heavily against the pending draft. The junta would interpret a “yes” vote as vox populi endorsement of its rule and a tool to deflect steady international criticism of its legitimacy. But as the regime ramps up its suppression ahead of the vote, it seems increasingly unlikely that the international community will view a “yes” result as free, fair, or legitimate.