Weekly Insights and Analysis

Thailand: Misperceptions of the Referendum

September 12, 2007

By James Klein

On Sunday, August 19, 2007, Thailand’s Election Commission organized the Kingdom’s first referendum in history. Voters were given the opportunity to vote either “Yes” or “No” to adopt the newly drafted Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, which would provide the ground rules for a new elected civilian government to replace the Interim Constitution of 2006 and the government installed by military leadership after the September 19, 2006 coup. Nationwide, 57.6% of eligible voters cast their ballots; the majority, 56.7%, voted yes. The military acknowledges that it had hoped for both a higher turnout for the referendum and approval rating for the draft charter; nevertheless, some reports of the referendum has been fraught with confusion and errors, leading to a growing level of misinformation being accepted as fact. Here are a few examples of frequent misstatements and clarifications.

Voter turnout for the referendum was tepid. By what standards? Many democracies of the world, including the United States and Great Britain, would be satisfied in their own elections with a turnout of 57.6%. It is true that Thaksin was swept into office in 2001 with a 69.9% turnout and reaffirmed in 2005 with a 72.6% turnout; although only 63.4% voiced their views in 2006. However, what has not been explained in commentary and coverage is that under the 1997 Constitution, citizens were required to vote (note more than a quarter typically refused despite the law). There were no such requirements for this referendum. The 58% turnout was comparable to the average turnout of 60.1% for the seven elections during the 1980’s and 1990’s before the imposition of required voting, and far higher to the 42.2% for the nation’s first 12 elections held between 1933-1979.

Also, as a number of associates who chose not to vote noted to me, the referendum had no “drama” or “personality” they explained at least during a general election there is a good debate between candidates that one can side with.

The military staged a massive propaganda campaign to get people to vote, and to say yes. Not really. While numerous factions, including the military junta, waged a publicity campaign to assert their preference, the government delivered a factually correct voter education campaign. Had it done nothing, it would have been criticized for not conducting any voter education campaign. The massive disinformation came from Thai Rak Thai party loyalists who based their vote “No” campaign on lies, hype, and vote buying. The only legitimate vote “No” campaigns were conducted by marginalized purist democrats opposed to the coup on principle and socialists opposed to the capitalist system the charter supports.

Due to martial law the voter turnout for the referendum was low. False. An analysis of the Election Commission’s data clearly shows that in the 41 provinces free of marshal law, home to 51% of eligible voters, the turn out was 57.2%. One could indeed counter-argue that in the 35 provinces where martial law was in force, home to 49% of eligible voters, turnout should have been higher because of intimidation over the population to vote. Nevertheless, it was not statistically different that the slightly higher 58.0% turnout in the marshal law provinces.

Those living under martial law overwhelmingly rejected the charter. False. While it is true that those living under martial law contributed to 55.25% of the total “No” vote nationwide, by a slight majority of 51.6% citizens living in the 35 martial law provinces approved the 2007 Constitution.

The referendum was a vote for or against military dictatorship. False. The referendum was a simple “Yes” or “No” vote to accept the 2007 Constitution. Die-hard fundamentalist democrats opposed to the coup, as well as disgruntled members of Thaksin’s ousted government made every effort, largely ignored by the average citizen in most of the country, to make the referendum be about the coup. However, they were never able to garner together even a fraction of the number of protesters that the People’s Alliance for Democracy had brought together night after night in 2006 prior to forcing Thaksin to resign. There are no indicators to suggest that more than a small minority used their “No” vote (or abstained from voting) to demonstrate their displeasure with the coup.

Turnout was low because many did not want to vote on a constitution that did not include Buddhism as the state religion. Not at all. Although the vast majority of Thais (94%) are Buddhist, Buddhism has never been the state religion under any of Thailand’s previous 17 constitutions. Every religion has its extremists, and Buddhism is no different. A fringe minority, albeit vocal and theatrical, some colorfully going on a hunger strike, pushed this issue in 1996-97 and lost; and lost again in 2007 because it does not represent Thai opinion. Most believe such political demands are fixed on worldliness and thus are inherently un-Buddhist. In her birthday speech in August, Her Majesty the Queen expressed the majority view to the minority protesters: don’t mix religion and politics.

Most voters had not even read the constitution let alone understood its key elements. This statement holds Thais to a different standard than western developed democracies. Average citizens in the world’s most advanced democracies make their political decisions on the basis of information ” derived from sound-bites, the advice of trusted friends or family members, life-long political biases, or the counsel of their elected representatives. Why should the average Thai be held to higher standards? The National Drafting Assembly mailed a copy of the draft constitution to every household in Thailand but it could not force anyone to read the 209 Articles constituting 169 pages of legal jargon. Perhaps the question is how many eligible voters in advanced democracies have a copy of their constitution in their home; how many have read it; and more significantly, how many could pass a basic test on its key elements?

The referendum demonstrates that Thailand is deeply divided. Yes, but it’s not the division that you think. The term “deeply divided nation” would refer to a country in which voters are irrevocably split nearly 50/50. A 58/41 split over the constitution might suggest such a split but this is far from the case in Thailand. Voters in the “Yes” provinces represent 63.6% of the nation’s eligible voters and 70% of them cast a YES ballot. Those in the “No” provinces represent only 36.4% of voters and only 57% cast a “No” ballot. The “No” provinces represent a small pocket in northern Thailand and a pocket in northeastern Thailand. Nationally, although they represent a significant minority, in the forthcoming December 2007 general elections they can only dream to seize a third of the seats in the House of Representatives. This is because Thaksin acquired more than half of the former Thai Rak Thai MPs from these provinces through the merger and acquisition of smaller provincial parties. Many of these MPs are now rejoining their colleagues from the pre-Thai Rak Thai days, and with the power of incumbency will no doubt be re-elected. The 70% of eligible voters in the “Yes” provinces will no doubt seize at least a comfortable two-thirds of the seats in those provinces, if not in parliament. How does 70:30 constitute a serious political divide?

There is a political divide in Thailand but it is far less dramatic than either the Thai or international media is suggesting. Moreover, the divide is a regional one, primarily between the Northeast and the rest of the nation; one that has existed since the first election in 1933. Further democratic maturation, economic development, and political reform in Thailand will be required over the coming decades for politicians to adequately address this divide.

James Klein is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Thailand.

Related locations: Thailand
Related programs: Elections


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