Thai Voters Approve New Constitution: What You Need to Know
August 10, 2016
On August 7, Thais went to the polls to give their verdict on a new constitution drafted by the government installed by a military coup in 2014. Drafters claim that the new constitution will combat corruption, resolve long-standing political turmoil, and provide a roadmap for the return to democratic government. Although turnout was low, over 61 percent of Thais who went to the polls on August 7 voted in favor of a new constitution, handing a clear victory to the country’s military-led government and seemingly paving the way for a general election in 2017. While the referendum was by all accounts ably administered, the quality of information available to voters on the more controversial elements of the draft charter, and the harsh restrictions placed on the voices of those who took a critical view of it, will affect public confidence in the charter going forward.
Journalists, observers, and even some opposition leaders have stated that they respect the will of the people as expressed through the referendum vote and noted that the process appeared to be fair on referendum day. Although some see the apparent integrity of the polling process as reinforcing the democratic legitimacy of the junta’s reform roadmap, from a technical perspective it is not possible to judge the quality of a referendum process by looking solely at what occurs on polling day. A combination of factors makes it difficult to know whether or not the outcome is a legitimate expression of the will of the Thai people.
To participate effectively in an electoral or polling process, voters need sufficient information to make an informed decision. In this case, campaigning either for or against the draft constitution was prohibited by the military government, leaving the government itself as the only source of information about the charter. Observers suggest that the government portrayed the draft constitution in the best possible light, emphasizing populist elements such as social service delivery and avoiding reference to its more controversial elements to urge voters to vote “yes.” There were also suggestions that restrictions on campaigning were applied unfairly, with critics of the constitution repressed and arrested while political and other prominent figures who supported the draft were allowed to openly express their views.
In conversation with observers as they exited polling stations in and around Bangkok, some voters claimed that they were able to get enough information through official and informal channels to make an informed decision on the draft, while others speculated that the majority of voters did not have the information they needed to understand the constitution and its implications. Indeed, even the second referendum question concerning the prospective appointment of a prime minister by a non-elected Senate was seemingly poorly understood by voters.
Although the Election Commission of Thailand had projected a turnout of around 80 percent (voting is compulsory in Thailand), the actual turnout was 55 percent – the lowest for a Thai election or referendum since 1983. Without a survey or poll it is impossible to know why more people did not turn out, but a number of possible reasons have emerged. They include apathy (the belief that one’s vote is meaningless), boycott (disagreement with the process), and fear.
The latter factor is particularly relevant, as the military government deployed hundreds of thousands of “volunteers” ahead of the referendum to “educate” the population. It also introduced a new requirement that voters place their thumbprint on the registration documents completed at polling stations, leading many to fear that the government would later be able to determine how an individual had voted. Reports suggest that many potential voters may have decided it made best sense to avoid the process completely.
The constitution was written without significant public participation, and is viewed by many academics and experts as deeply flawed. It essentially institutionalizes military rule, and contains elements that are seemingly modeled on some of the more notorious authoritarian governments of Southeast Asia, including Suharto’s “New Order” government in Indonesia and the junta-dominated former government in neighboring Myanmar. Both of the major political parties (the Pheu Thai Party and Democrat Party), who are otherwise fierce political opponents, campaigned against the draft constitution.
So, if the constitution is so fraught with problems, why did 61 percent of Thai voters approve it? Observers have suggested a number of explanations for the counter-intuitive outcome, with the most common being that Thais voted for “stability” (as distinct from approval of the military government), fearing rejection of the draft could lead to further political instability and violence. There may be some merit to this view for, despite years of political tension, the Thai economy continues to perform reasonably well. Although foreign direct investment has been declining steadily since the last coup in 2006, other indicators are up. Tourist arrivals from western countries have remained relatively flat due to the ongoing political instability in the country, but there has been a large increase in tourist from non-western countries like China and Russia (Chinese visitors grew from less than a million in 2006 to almost 8 million in 2015). Moreover, although both the Democrat Party and the military junta decry Thaksin-era “populist” policies, government spending on such policies has doubled since 2006, as incumbent governments (including the present military government) sought popular support.
In approving the draft constitution, voters may also have placed confidence in a swift return to electoral democracy. In the August 2007 constitutional referendum that followed the 2006 coup, Thai voters approved the draft charter with the expectation that an elected government could address any issues or problems associated with the constitution. The latest referendum result may reflect a similar expectation, bolstered by assurances from the junta that an elected government can indeed change the constitution; however, analysts suggest that the controversial provisions through which the military maintains significant control over an elected government will limit the legislature’s ability to amend the constitution.
Winners and losers emerge from this process. Losers include the political parties, and most particularly the Democrat Party. While Pheu Thai is unlikely to lose many of its core supporters, a significant split and subsequent weakening of the Democrat Party looks likely – potentially into an urban, elite, establishment wing led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, and a more populist, southern-based wing centered on Suthep Thaugsuban and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). The establishment Democrats implicitly supported the 2014 coup, providing cover for the anti-government PDRC activists to destabilize the country, undermine the election process, and eventually topple the Yingluck government, presumably in the expectation that they would regain power following coup, as had occurred after the previous coup in 2006. Following the coup, the establishment Democrats eventually realized that the military had no intention of handing them power again and reversed their stance to oppose the constitution, but this was too late to have a meaningful impact. At the same time, the PDRC wing remained steadfast in its support for the military.
The principal winner in the August 7 referendum is Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who some suggest would have been pressured to step down, or been pushed out, had the constitution been rejected. Also winning are Suthep Thaugsuban and the “whistleblowers” of the PDRC, who successfully engineered the overthrow of an elected government.
As an exercise in enhancing public perception of the democratic legitimacy of the current government, the referendum is unlikely to have significant impact. Those who believe that the constitutional development process was flawed and the referendum process unfair will probably not change their minds based on the polling outcome, which means that the country is likely to remain politically polarized in at least the near term.
If the reform roadmap is fulfilled as promised by the military government, the referendum sets Thailand on course for an election that is tentatively planned for November 2017 and the restoration of a nominally civilian government. It is hoped that the election process can bring real political dialog that leads to an essential process of reconciliation and healing. Although international involvement in Thailand’s political development can be a sensitive issue, the international community does have a role to play in helping Thai partners in government and civil society and ordinary citizens to express their views in the ongoing political transition.
Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s director for Elections and Political Processes and Kim McQuay is the Foundation’s country representative for Thailand. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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