On Sunday, August 7, voters across the country will take part in a referendum that will decide whether Thailand adopts a new constitution — one that would place significant political powers in the hands of the Thai military, in essence making permanent the role of the armed forces, which have governed the country since a May 2014 coup. For instance, the draft constitution includes a new provision that would allow the military junta’s executive council — the euphemistically named National Council for Peace and Order (คณะรักษาความสงบแห่งชาติ) — to appoint all 250 members of the Senate in a newly reconstituted bicameral national assembly. Among other things, that would give the Thai military veto power over any future prime minister, future elected governments, their policy agenda, the Thai bureaucracy and the country’s judiciary.
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Under the new constitution, all 500 members of the lower house, the House of Representatives, are to be determined by a proportional representation voting system that makes it almost impossible for a single party or movement to win an absolute majority. Most observers believe that this is a direct ploy to disenfranchise a majority of Thai voters who have supported populists over the last two decades who have promised to redistribute wealth away from wealthy elites.
The referendum follows an atypical campaign, which is to say that there hasn’t exactly been a true campaign. Opponents of the new constitution face severe restrictions against speaking out for a ‘No’ vote, and some have received lengthy prison sentences for doing so. That’s standard course for the ruling junta, which has sentenced Thai citizens to prison for comments — even on Facebook or other social media — for speech deemed ‘offensive to the royal family.’
In a sense, the military government, headed for over two years now by a retired army officer, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, is in a ‘heads-I-win-tails-you-lose’ situation.
With no true ability to mobilize, opponents of the draft constitution are at a disadvantage. With no outside election monitors or real checks on ballot integrity, we might never know the true result if the official result is not tallied transparently. Even if the military government allows the ‘No’ camp a victory, Prayuth has made it clear that the government will simply submit a new constitution en route to fresh elections that are set to take place sometime in 2017. Notably, if voters reject the constitution on Sunday, it will be the second failed effort, after the military jettisoned a first draft last September.
In broad strokes, Thailand is no stranger to military coups or to newly promulgated constitutions. But from 2001 through 2014, a single family came to dominate Thai politics, ably capturing the hearts of a majority of Thai voters, especially among the rural poor and especially in the country’s relatively less developed north.
Thaksin Shinawatra, who entered politics as a neophyte from the business world in 1994, swept to victory in 2001 on a populist, anti-poverty, pro-social development platform. After his resounding reelection in 2005, however, he was overthrown by a coup in 2006 and replaced by a more pro-elite government. Thaksin has lived in exile in Dubai for the last decade. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, won power in 2011 after the military permitted fresh elections. After the 2014 vote, however, boycotted by the opposition, the military stepped in and took power — this time for itself, not for a civilian government. In office, both brother and sister attempted to introduce sometimes heavy-handed policies to boost the incomes of their rural, impoverished supporters. In both cases, those policies enraged their powerful political opponents.
Accordingly, politics in the Shinawatra era were deeply polarized. Poorer northern Thais became die-hard ‘red shirt’ supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck. Wealthier Thais, localized in Bangkok and in the south of the country, supported the more royalist Phak Prachathipat (Democrat Party, พรรคประชาธิปัตย์). But with so many more poorer voters, the ‘red shirts’ always won a hearty majority. The Democrats boycotted the last election in January 2014, in part because a victory seemed hopeless, and in part because it could de-legitimize the government so much that the military would take control. Like so many times before, that’s exactly what happened. Unlike so many times before (in 2006 and 2008, for instance), the military didn’t simply hand over power to the Democrats.
Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has ruled since 1946, and the great hope has always been that the royal family could rally the country into a new, more stable, political situation. But the king is 88 years old, in poor health and in no position to rally anyone. Indeed, the military has often used the fig leaf of the country’s harsh lèse majesté laws (those that define offenses against the dignity of the monarchy) as a pretense to crack down.
Today, while Thaksin remains in exile, a defiant Yingluck is standing trial on charges relating to a failed rice subsidy that she implemented as prime minister, designed to stabilize incomes of Thailand’s rice farmers. She remains widely popular, and she has called on supporters to oppose the new constitution and, in courageous terms, criticized it as being an anti-democratic measure.
While many ‘red shirts’ will naturally oppose the new constitution, there’s reason to believe the same for the ‘yellow shirt’ supporters. Bangkok’s business class hasn’t been extraordinarily pleased with two years of military rule, nor does it seem well-disposed to a permanent military hand in economic and political matters. The economy struggled to keep pace in 2014 and 2015 amid the staggering uncertainty over the country’s political future, even denting the country’s tourism boom. Moreover, if the Democratic Party ever returns to power, it certainly doesn’t want its agenda hamstrung by the military. Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva last week denounced the junta’s new constitution as unhelpful and anti-democratic, arguing that it will cause additional conflict in the future.
Across nearly two decades of political strife, it’s hard to imagine anything uniting Abhisit and Yingluck. Abhisit’s stand was equally courageous, given that his party stands to gain from fresh 2017 elections under the new regime. So his abrupt opposition to the new constitution was something of a shock, leaving further in doubt the referendum’s outcome.
The referendum will actually ask voters two questions — the first a straight yes-no on accepting the constitution, the second a straight yes-no on whether the upper house of the National Assembly should be permitted to join the lower house in selecting a prime minister. It’s not clear, entirely, what would happen if voters split on the two questions, given that the draft constitution contemplates such an important role for the military-appointed Senate.
Unfortunately for everyday Thais, Sunday’s vote seems unlikely to settle the decades-long dysfunction over the country’s politics and could well force the military into an even more authoritarian posture.