As Thailand approaches its monumental referendum, the potential for political conflict is high. What will happen after Sunday?
Thailand’s constitution-drafting process has come to the crucial point — the referendum on the draft charter on 7 August. All arms of Thailand’s authoritarian regime are working in unison to ensure that the referendum will go smoothly and coerce an acceptance of the draft from Thais.
The junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) introduced the Referendum Act in April, which prohibits the distribution of false information or information in a violent, aggressive, vulgar, or coercive manner that might influence the public’s vote. The Constitutional Court confirmed that the prohibition, and the ambiguous language of the Act are both constitutional. The Court admitted that black letters of the Act (or the technical legal elements) lacked precision but are permissible, since flexibility is necessary for the successful application of the Act.
The Court’s decision allowed the Election Commission (EC) to deem any criticism of the draft as a distortion of the facts, resulting in widespread arrests of local politicians, university students, and political activists who voiced disagreement with the draft. The police went so far as prosecuting children who tore up a list of eligible voters while playing at various referendum booths.
At the same time as the crack downs, the Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) and the EC joined hands to unilaterally propagate the benefits of the draft charter. Complaints arose that this propaganda actually contained false information. Even universities entertained the junta’s wishes, shutting down venues for public discussion and warning their professors to keep their mouths shut. These are concerted efforts to silence any opposition and convince Thais to vote for the draft.
The possible outcome of this upcoming referendum is unpredictable. Assessment of public opinion is challenging since the intimidating atmosphere means most people impose self-censorship and several polls available are known to be heavily biased. Surveys indicate a landslide victory for the junta, but the general mood indicates otherwise.
Despite intimidation, groups recently came out to confirm that they would reject the draft. Reasons varied.
Many pro-democracy Thais regard a rejection of the referendum as a symbolic rejection of the military government. Others complained about the lack of participation in the drafting process and dissatisfaction of the content. The CDC prepared the draft charter in secrecy. A number of entitlements were lost or significantly reduced without public consultation — for example, the right to free education, the right to universal healthcare coverage, and the right to good environment.
Another group is worried that the draft entrenches the control of the elite minority more deeply into Thai politics, which will not solve Thailand’s political problems. This new constitution empowers the judiciary and other independent agencies while deliberately weakening electoral politics.
Finally, there are people who will turn down the draft because they consider it not extreme enough to eradicate corrupt politicians. They wish, quite sincerely, that Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO), could stay in power longer.
Meanwhile, other anti-junta activists are calling people to boycott the vote, which might actually help the junta achieve its desirable outcome. Until all ballots are counted, no one could be certain of the result.
The biggest question remains; what will happen to Thailand after the referendum?
A defeat for the referendum is definitely embarrassing. But embarrassment is not going to topple this oppressive regime. In mid-2015, the junta had to abort the first constitution draft because its politburo-style Crisis Panel was hugely unpopular. The government survived the consequent humiliation and went on to commission this very draft.
Clearly, Prayuth will not resign. Another draft will be written. But there might, or might not, be another referendum.
The public has no clue as to what the new draft would look like. Uncertainty is the NCPO’s top strategy. Add the public will becomes even more anxious if Prayuth reveals no further plans should the draft fails. Only by accepting the draft will Thailand move concretely towards the NCPO’s exit from rule.
Sadly, any exit this draft provides would be a fake and temporary one.
A yes vote will award the NCPO an awkward but sweet victory. Although no one would agree that this referendum is free and fair, the NCPO could still fool itself that it is. With victory the NCPO can then anticipate a smooth transition from this fragile and crude military government to an electoral democracy under the supervision of traditional elites according to the constitution.
Transition, nonetheless, is long. It will take at least 15 months after the referendum for the NLA to finish passing all necessary laws on elections and political parties and for the first general election could be held. Under the proposed new constitution, the NCPO will also be able to handpick the 250-member Senate — with six seats reserved for military chiefs. And if the public approves this additional question in the referendum, this Senate will be able to vote for the next prime minister.
Meanwhile, the incoming cabinet will face a long checklist for its ethical standards and competency. Civilian politicians are subject to harsh judicial review. The newly-elected government’s policies are also strictly bound by directives set out in the constitutional chapters on the Duty of the State, Policy Guideline, and National Reform. In fact, the new government can initiate very little and its initiative may easily lead to prosecution or impeachment. The vast network of powerful elites will be installed constitutionally into Thailand’s already highly unstable political landscape.
More worryingly, the victory will sharpen the country’s long-term political conflict. If the referendum passes, it will confirm that Thailand’s elite minority can still control the majority through undemocratic means — including lies and violence. With a victory, they will also be less willing to negotiate a new power deal with the grassroots, an act urgently needed in times of dying old elites and rising liberals.
The majority, who find themselves powerless to make any political changes, might take to the street. After the passage of the constitution, violence is foreseeable.
Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a Thai constitutional law scholar.