Thai junta stacks its referendum cards

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2007, 12:00am

On August 19, the junta in Bangkok will lay a Hobson's choice before Thais by way of a referendum on the constitution that has been recently drafted under the military's auspices.

By offering the illusion of an alternative, the military has seemingly calculated that a show can be made of democratic credentials in the eyes of Thais, and foreign allies, while also reducing the risks that come with a referendum.

Public approval will endow Thailand's 18th constitution since 1932 with a veneer of legitimacy that is now absent. The previous constitution worked well, producing the intended strong, stable administrations in place of weak, revolving coalition governments synonymous with Thailand's bouts of democracy. But it was not adequately insulated from emasculation by strong government and the failings of individuals and institutions that were supposed to keep rulers in check.

The new constitution's response is to impose more restrictive rules on elected politicians, while giving a senate dominated by appointees extensive powers.

This is likely to result in weak, coalition governments unable to challenge the power of the military or the bureaucracy. It recalls the 1980s, when a military-backed government - admittedly one of Thailand's most competent - ran the country while politicians were corralled in a powerless parliament.

If the vote goes against this constitution, the generals promise to impose a charter modified as they see fit. That may not be popular, but Thailand will still have a constitution the military deems necessary for a general election, due in December.

The junta is urging Thais to display their patriotism by supporting a constitution that reaffirms the revered monarch as head of state. Coincidentally, 19 million copies of the constitution being distributed to the public are bound in yellow - the king's birthday colour.

Rallying the public to vote could be a challenge. Many voters - disenchanted with politics after Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved in May for electoral fraud - are expected to give the poll a miss.

Nevertheless, a solid showing is expected from pro-military voters, plus a significant minority who dislike Thaksin. That should weight the result in favour of the constitution and ensure enough votes are cast for the military to claim a credible referendum.

Such a result, however, is unlikely to herald easy times ahead for the junta. For one thing, a backlash cannot be discounted if junta leader General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin takes heart from the result to stand in the election, with an eye on the prime minister's chair.

For another, exporters of labour-intensive products - such as crops and low-tech goods - say they cannot withstand the impact of the strong baht for much longer.

Bankruptcies and layoffs in the run-up to the election could favour politicians considered close to Thaksin, whose rule, rightly or not, is associated with the good times.

David Fullbrook is a freelance writer and political analyst