As Thailand votes on a new charter this Sunday, the result can only be more deadlock in a country long-suffering from political turmoil.
The referendum of 7 August brings the main actors back into the political ring for the ultimate competition for power in this critical period of Thailand’s politics.
In the months leading up to the referendum, pro-democracy groups, including the New Democratic Movement, and independent activists continued to defy rules set by the Thai junta. A series of arrests followed.
But in these very last moments before the referendum, both sides of the political divide have engaged in what was seen to be the final battle to influence the public of their position regarding the referendum.
Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared his disapproval of the constitution; ironically at the same time, he openly endorsed the remaining elements of the junta’s roadmap. His opinion on the constitution signified a break-up of an alliance with the PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Committee), led by former member of the Democrat Party Suthep Thaugsuban.
In 2013, Suthep and the PDRC launched a sustained anti-government campaign against democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, successfully creating a situation for the military to intervene in politics. The result was the coup of May 2014.
In responding to Abhisit’s position on Thailand’s new charter, Suthep told the public that he fully embraced the military-initiated constitution. He further legitimised his choice by resurrecting an anti-Thaksin discourse—one that equates adopting the constitution as equal to denouncing the Thaksin system.
Earlier, both former PMs and Shinawatra siblings, Thaksin and Yingluck, clarified their disapproval of the constitution. At the opposite end, Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, claiming to speak as an individual Thai, said he would vote “Yes” in the referendum.
The deep divisiveness detected in the referendum process points to dim prospects for political reconciliation in the future.
At the heart of the referendum conundrum lies the legitimacy of the constitution as much as the legitimacy of the junta. For many who plan to vote “No” on 7 August, it will be an exercise of delegitimising the junta too.
On the other side of the same coin, the pro-junta factions, such as the PRDC, are employing the same logic to give their support for the constitution. They exploited the ghost of Thaksin to scare off the middle class, who, accordingly, may vote for the draft charter.
Hence, the referendum could determine the life of the military government as well as the possibility of the Thaksin faction returning to political power. If the constitution is voted down by the public in the referendum, it will significantly reduce the credibility of the Prayuth government, and thus its ability to maintain its tight grip on power. If it gets approved, Thai democracy would be thrown in jeopardy.
While much attention has been given to the military’s tactic of using the constitution to prevent powerful political parties, like that of Thaksin, from dominating the parliament, the real discussion on the long term damages the constitution could cause to democratic institutions has been scant.
The political mood was also intensified this week by countless rumours of the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Previously, there was speculation that the king might abdicate, paving the way for the crowning of his son, Vajiralongkorn. But the controversies surrounding the Crown Prince, particularly his provocative outfits and revealing tattoo prints seen on his torso in Germany, made some royalists nervous about such a possibility of the abdication.
To some extent, the coup of 2014 and the continuity of the military government at this point in history appear to be related to the imminent royal succession. The network monarchy, for the military, must be nurtured, especially in the post-Bhumibol era. To ensure that their political interests will be maintained, the constitution was drafted in such a way that the elective institution would remain susceptible to the non-elective ones in the future.
Those who support the concept of the “Deep State” would explain this situation as an attempt to transfer the royal privileges into the hands of the judiciaries, turning the latter into a supreme institution to intervene in politics when necessary as the King has occasionally done in the past. Defending this constitution means, in part, empowering the legal hands to redefine Thai politics for the benefit of the network monarchy.
Sitting here in Kyoto, looking at Thailand from a distance, I see the political impasse in my country with great apprehension. Those in power today only care about strengthening their power position. The power struggle played out in Bangkok suggests a stiff competition among different powerful political groups at the top, rather than any serious concerns for the wellbeing of the people at the bottom.
Overwhelmingly, the royal succession has been fed into the national anxiety of what will come next after Bhumibol. While Thaksin, Yingluck, and Pheu Thai are still around, there have been few questions about how they could contribute towards a greater democratisation in Thailand, should they return to form a government in the post-election period.
I continue to see a political deadlock, no matter the outcome of the referendum.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.