A military-backed constitution was passed overwhelmingly by Thai voters in a national referendum on Sunday, an electoral result that will have profound implications for the polarized country’s political future. Provisional official results indicated that 61 percent of voters chose in favor of the draft, despite provisions that guarantee a future overarching political role for the armed forces in a hand-picked Senate and vocal opposition from the country’s two main sidelined political parties, the Democrats and Peua Thai. A second referendum question also passed, opening the way for the potential selection of a non-elected prime minister.
The result will nominally pave the way for new general elections more than three years after the military ousted an elected administration in May 2014 in the name of restoring political stability and uprooting endemic corruption. Coup-maker and prime minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha vowed regardless of the referendum’s result to hold polls by 2017, in line with his so-called “roadmap” to democracy. If the referendum had failed, Prayut said he would unilaterally impose another unknown draft. The former army commander had earlier promised to hold new polls variously in 2015 and 2016, deadlines that passed for what many viewed as self-manufactured reasons actually meant to attenuate his junta’s stay in power.
Portrayed by its drafters and proponents as an “anti-corruption” charter, the constitution’s prescribed new order will firmly limit political parties’ and elected politicians’ ability to implement policies, a measure aimed to contain the populist pledges that ex-premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra leveraged to successive election wins. It will also give military-appointed bodies, including the Senate, wide discretion to check and ban elected politicians perceived as corrupt. Thaksin is in self-exile from a 2008 criminal corruption conviction; Yingluck is currently in the dock on criminal negligence charges for her populist rice subsidy scheme. Both former leaders claim that the charges against them are politically motivated.
There are already competing interpretations of what the “yes” vote represents. Local media portrayed the result as popular rejection of established political parties and a return to the pre-coup democratic status quo. Regime supporters say the charter’s anti-corruption message had credibility with grassroots voters in view of Prayut’s high-profile anti-crime campaign, where soldiers are seen regularly in media reports busting local mafia and wayward police rackets. While activists have steadily decried the regime’s suppression of liberties, a majority of Thais is willing to sacrifice certain democratic freedoms for stability and unity, the same supporters claimed in explaining Sunday’s “yes” vote.
Mainstream politicians, on the other hand, argue that the result reflected mainly a popular desire for a speedy return to electoral democracy. That was how most analysts interpreted a similar post-coup vote on a less democratic military-drafted constitution in 2007, which was passed by over 58 percent of the populace and eventually returned a pro-Thaksin elected government to power. That interpretation, however, seems less clear in explaining Sunday’s surprise result in light of strong pre-poll criticism of the draft and its perceived as anti-democratic intent from top politicians, including Thaksin, Yingluck, and Democrat ex-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Thaksin and Yingluck’s inability to get out the “no” vote was particularly notable considering their aligned parties’ domination of all general elections since 2001. In comments to Reuters on August 4, Thaksin characterized the draft charter as a “folly” designed to perpetuate junta rule that, if passed, would result in “a nightmare of contradiction and confusion.” Yingluck likewise bid to stoke anti-charter sentiment in personal Facebook posts and media-geared visits with provincial supporters, but voters in her native northern region still voted resoundingly (58 percent) in favor of the military’s charter. Peua Thai’s northeastern stronghold was the only region to vote (51 percent) down the draft, though by a slimmer margin (63 percent) than mostly rural voters there voted down the earlier constitution in 2007.
Regardless of voters’ motivation, the credibility of the result is tainted by the junta’s harsh suppression of vote “no” campaigning in the run-up to the vote. Hard curbs on free expression, imposed in a draconian Referendum Act that carried potential 10-year prison sentences for misrepresenting the draft, criticizing its content, or disrupting the vote, resulted in the arrest of at least 120 people, according to Human Rights Watch, a rights group. In June, the United Nations expressed its concerns about the restrictions and later released a follow-up to counter comments apparently made by the Thai foreign ministry to the local press that said the U.N. was not concerned.
With those restrictions in place, including a junta-enforced ban against the Peua Thai-aligned “Red Shirt” activist group from establishing electoral fraud monitoring centers across the country, there was no indication of systematic irregularities on polling day. The Asian Network for Free Elections, or ANFREL, an independent election monitoring body, said in a Twitter post soon after the polls closed on Sunday that the vote had been “relatively smooth” and that poll booth staff had performed “professionally.” Both Peua Thai and the UDD accepted the result as legitimate, defusing what some viewed as a potential source of instability if they had challenged it as rigged. (Abhisit said he also accepted the people’s will.)
The question now is how will Prayut exercise his semi-democratic mandate while junta officials prepare the legal groundwork for holding general elections in 2017. Some observers predict an emboldened junta will leverage the “yes” vote to further tighten its police state grip on opponents, activists and journalists, in the name of maintaining stability and security ahead of the polls. Others wonder whether Prayut’s promised polls will be postponed or even suspended amid rising concerns about 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ailing health and lingering questions about the future of the monarchy upon the country’s first royal succession in over seven decades.