Commentary 2016/43, 10 August 2016
On 7 August, the draft of Thailand’s 20th constitution was approved in a contentious but peaceful referendum. According to the Election Commission of Thailand 15.56 million people voted in favour of the draft while 9.78 million rejected it. The turnout was relatively low with only 55 per cent of eligible voters casting their ballots, compared to 57.6 per cent in the 2007 referendum and 75 per cent in the 2011 General Elections.
There are two reasons for the overwhelming vote for the draft. First, the voter turnout in the Northeast, stronghold of the Red Shirts and Pheu Thai party, was low. Many perceived the referendum to be unfree and unfair, and believed that the military would remain in power regardless of the outcome. Second, there was no splitting of votes among Democrat Party’s supporters despite Abhisit Vejjajiva’s, the opposition party leader, rejection of the draft. In essence it may be argued that the majority of Thais voted for the draft in hope of a return to normalcy and stability. The junta successfully persuaded voters that the military was needed to stabilise the country during this “transition period”. Voters also believed that the semi-authoritarian regime guided by the military would prevent the recurrence of street politics and violence that engulfed Thailand in recent years.
The referendum result not only endorses the constitution, but also shores up the Prayuth government’s legitimacy to rule. It demonstrates, among other things, that Thailand is still politically divided and reconciliation remains beyond reach. The Upper North, Northeast and the Deep South voted against the constitution while the rest of the country supported the junta-sponsored “political blueprint” which aims to entrench the power of the military and unelected elite at the expense of political parties and the popular will of the electorate.
In all likelihood the upcoming elections, promised to take place by late 2017 or early 2018, will see an unelected Prime Minister chosen by the military to lead an unstable and weak coalition government. Political stability will depend upon the balance of power between the military and various political parties; a balance that may be all too easily lost.
Prajak Kongkirati is Visiting Fellow with the Thailand Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University, Thailand.
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