Thailand's Junta

Thai referendum: what twists and turns lie ahead on kingdom’s political roller coaster?

Referendum will shape Thailand’s latest transition from junta rule to democracy, with election supposedly scheduled for the middle of 2017

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 7:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 7:03am

Thailand will face a new political test this weekend, as the country heads to the polls to vote on a new draft constitution.

The result will set the agenda for the country’s political system in the short-term, especially up to and including the next general election, which the country’s ruling junta has stated will take place in mid-2017 – an election which is expected to be held regardless of whether the draft charter is approved or not.

To reiterate his promise, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha recently said the government will move ahead if the charter receives a green light from people, while a “Plan B” is also prepared in case the charter is shot down in the vote.

It is wrong from the beginning that the draft is junta-sponsored, and it is undemocratic as people did not take part in the drafting process
Poonthep Sirinupong, Thammasat University

Despite an unclear back-up plan, the government insisted it would not affect the road map to restoring democracy, and the election in particular, which the National Council for Peace and Order, led by Prayuth, announced after taking power in a coup in mid-2014.

However, the junta-sponsored draft charter has been facing a number of doubts from both public and political groups, especially the provision in the draft that opens a channel for the military government to continue holding power, regardless of the referendum result or outcome of the general election.

The key issue in the draft that has been widely criticised is the section stating that 250 seats in the Senate will be selected by the NCPO during the transitional period. Crucially, those senators could be involved in the process of electing prime ministers, depending on how the vote goes.

This controversial issue has drawn strong criticism from various civic groups and political parties. Some critics have said allowing the NCPO’s appointed senators to choose the prime minister is clearly seen as “staging a coup” without using force.

Another point of contention is an article related to the prime minister, which creates the potential for an outsider to take up the role.

Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who announced he would reject the draft charter, said the atmosphere of the 2016 referendum campaign is different from the previous constitution referendum in 2007.

“The 2007 referendum was held under the martial law but the atmosphere was better than now, especially the government officials, who were asked to be neutral,” Abhisit said.

An academic from Thammasat University, Poonthep Sirinupong, said this draft will not lead the country to democracy, since it has been produced by the coup leaders and their cronies. He said people have not been allowed to join the drafting process, thus the charter is clearly undemocratic and deserves to be shot down.

“It is wrong from the beginning that the draft is junta-sponsored, and it is undemocratic as people did not take part in the drafting process,” he said. “The NCPO, coup makers under Prayuth, can stay in power for another five to six years because their appointed [portion of the] Senate is one-third of the parliament.”

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Under the draft charter, the Thai parliament will consist of two Houses – The House of Representatives, containing 500 members, and the Senate, with 200 members. However, a provision in the charter states that the NCPO is empowered to appoint the 250 members across both houses in transitional period.

Thus, the appointed senators are being regarded by some as the NCPO’s proxies that will give the Junta legitimacy in controlling power under the constitution.

Away from the criticism, some political movements and figures, including the former deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who was leader of the now-defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee, have vowed to accept the draft, as they want the next government to achieve the country’s reform.

Suthep, who led a protest against the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2013, before the coup in 2014, said he could not trust politicians who only focus on their own interests, and that this constitution could help make vital movements towards reform and eradicate corruption among politicians and bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, opinion polls show a large number of eligible voters have not yet made a decision on the draft charter, even though the political rivals – the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties – have clearly campaigned to vote against the draft.

Yingluck, who is facing malfeasance charges over a rice-pledging scheme, recently called on voters to exercise their rights by voting in the referendum.

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“Please vote to show whether you will allow this constitution to be used in the future administration,” Yingluck said via Facebook.

Most of the Pheu Thai Party’s members have said they will reject the draft charter, which they have described as “undemocratic.”

According to the Election Commission, there are about 50 million eligible voters nationwide, and the turnout is expected to be around 80 per cent, comparing with 57.61 per cent in the 2007 referendum.

The unofficial result is expected to be revealed by around 8pm on Sunday, the commission said.

As for the expected result, Poonthep said it is too early to say yet, as he believes that most voters have not yet decided, and a large number still lack the right information on voting and the questions being asked.