In The News

In Thailand: After the Constitutional Referendum

August 22, 2007

On August 19, eleven months after Thailand’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a military-backed coup d’├ętat, the Thai people went to the polls for the national referendum ostensibly to accept or reject a new constitution drafted by the military’s Council for National Security(CNS). For most people, the details of the draft constitution hardly mattered. Rather, the process was seen as a popularity contest between the military’s supporters and supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

On election day about 26 million voters (57%) went to the polls, and, in an apparent win for the CNS, 56% voted in favor of the new constitution. But for a variety of reasons, few see this victory as unequivocal, and it is unlikely to resolve the continuing political instability in Thailand.

Prior to the poll, both the government and the opposition used questionable tactics to advance their cause. To enhance the legitimacy of the process, and of their own rule, the government orchestrated a massive effort to encourage a high turnout, using radio and television, local officials, and the army. In many cases, critics allege, the government went beyond merely encouraging participation to actual campaigning for a “yes” vote, and warning that a “no” vote could lead to continued instability and possibly violence. Meanwhile the opposition, effectively denied access to the airwaves, campaigned for a “no” vote by saying the constitution would weaken democracy, and allegedly also resorted to more traditional disinformation campaigns and vote-buying.

Although the government won numerically, its victory was probably not convincing enough to put an end to the ongoing political uncertainty and instability in Thailand. Although 57% voted in favor of the new constitution, because of the relatively low turnout that figure means that just 33% of eligible voters actually endorsed the new constitution, with the other two-thirds either voting no or not bothering to vote at all.

In some countries (Italy is an example), to help ensure a decision reflects the consensus of society, passage of a referendum requires a majority of eligible voters, while in others constitutional change requires a “super-majority,” representing two-thirds or three-quarters of votes cast. By these standards, 33% of eligible voters is hardly an overwhelming mandate for the new constitution, or endorsement of the current government. So, after the referendum, which was to decide the future of the country, both sides can credibly claim victory.

What this means for Thailand is, unfortunately, continued uncertainty about the political future of the country. Recognizing almost immediately that neither had scored a decisive knockout blow through the referendum, both the government and its opponents have, without a break or pause for breath, rolled directly into campaign mode for the next big contest, the national elections in December. Because the elections will install a new government, they will determine the political and economic future of Thailand rather than the referendum. The national elections are likely to be hard fought, with the military deploying all the power of the state to influence the process; and the opposition tapping Thaksin’s billions and the Thai Rak Thai’s political network to buy votes and influence people.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, in a fight between elephants, it is the grass or, in this case, the people of Thailand who are likely to be trampled. The future of Thailand lies in its people’s hands, but a strong case can be made both morally and economically that the international community should do all it can to support a peaceful and meaningful return to democracy in Thailand.

The EU has already agreed to send international observers for the elections, but more can be done. To ensure the legitimacy and credibility of the elections the international community should provide support for increased public participation in the process. That could include support for local observers, and for voter education. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the international community should make clear to all parties that Thailand’s standing in the world community will be judged by the fairness of the election process.

Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Elections and Political Process. He is based in Bangkok.

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