A Thai electoral official displays a ballot paper for the referendum
A Thai electoral official displays a ballot paper for the referendum

A Thai electoral official displays a ballot paper for the referendum

Thailand has voted in favour of a draft charter for a constitution that critics warn will formally entrench the power of the military in the first poll since the country’s latest coup d’etat in May 2014.

The “yes” vote gained a clear majority of about 60%, as Thais opted to end the political uncertainty in the country, which will now move towards an election — originally planned for 2015 — next year. While 50 million Thais were eligible to vote, there was a very low turnout of only 58% to vote for what will be Thailand’s 21st constitution since it moved to a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The government was hoping for an 80% turnout.

A government military spokesman described the referendum as “transparent and fair”, adding that “everyone wants the country to move forward”.

The new constitution will replace Thailand’s pre-coup parliamentary system — where both of the two houses of parliament were subject to popular vote — with an appointed Senate. The new constitution will dictate the make up of a 250-member appointed Senate, which will include the commanders of the army and other security services.

Senators will then join with elected MPs to select a prime minister for a five-year term, replacing a system where the leader of the party with the majority of MPs in the lower house becomes prime minister. A second question in yesterday’s poll approved this system of selecting the prime minister.

The country’s current, self-appointed Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the 2014 coup and head of the military junta, has promised that the 2017 election will go ahead. That vote means that the country will have democratic elections — albeit now only for the lower house — for the first time since 2011, but much remains unclear.

Prayuth also issued a rebuke to “foreign elements” who he accused of “inappropriate intervention” during “these delicate times of our political transition” — a continuation of the junta’s message to foreign government to butt out of Thailand’s affairs.

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Thailand’s political parties have been sidelined since the coup and have rejected the new charter. This continued during the run-up to the vote, where any debate about the proposed charter was almost non-existent, with the junta forbidding any politicians from commenting or campaigning on the proposals.

This has continued one of the core themes of the junta, which has been the sharp increase of censorship, an escalating crackdown on any dissent in the media and academic circles and banning of any forms of political protest.

“The powers-that-be and the constitution drafters should also be blamed for creating an atmosphere of confusion,” English language daily The Nation wrote in an editorial on the day of the vote.

“The draft has provisions that create fear they will entrench the junta in the corridors of power. There was only little public participation in the drafting. And public debate has been restricted in the run-up to the vote.”

Phumtham Wechayachai, acting secretary general of the Pheu Thai party. which was removed from government during the coup, said that “the government did not allow all sides to fully express their opinions about the draft and this partially resulted in voters not being well informed about the pros and cons of the draft. It was also less democratic than the 2007 charter that had been torn up by the junta,” according to the Bangkok Post.

Phumtham said the party — which believed people voted for the charters so the country could move quickly to elections — would continue to fight for democracy to be fully restored.

While Australia, along with the United States, was among the most vocal nations in the world against the coup, encouraging a return to democracy, there have been strong diplomatic efforts by Canberra to make amends with the junta. Thailand is the second biggest economy in the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, to which Australia is a key observer country.

Thailand remains, at least nominally, a key ally of the United States in south-east Asia but since the coup, the military has moved at least a little closer to China.

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Despite Thailand suffering periodical political unrest produces spasms of violence, such as street battles in Bangkok that left scores dead in 2010, it only dents the nation’s massive tourist business, which makes up about 20% of GDP, in the short term. In the two years since the coup, Thailand tourist numbers have roared back after dipping, following the 2013-14 street protests that led to the coup.

The big question is: what next for Thailand? An election and the appointment of a senate by the junta next year could result in someone not elected to parliament selected as prime minister. Indeed, many observers believe that Prayuth could continue in the role.

Hanging over the nation is the health of the country’s revered but ageing monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch, with more than 70 years on the throne.

Most observers believe that a succession could create further instability in the country.

“I don’t want democracy lovers to feel discouraged or feel they lost. You did not lose because you were in a war that you had no right to win,” said Jatuporn Prompan, leader of the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), or so-called Red Shirts, who are the — at present, inactive — opposition to the junta and represent the north of a country that is, politically speaking, effectively split in two.

UDD secretary-general Nattawut Saikuar warned that once the new constitution was enacted, it would lead to major political conflict in the future.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey