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Thailand: twentieth time lucky?

After overthrowing a democratically elected government two years ago, Thailand’s ruling military junta seemed to see no irony in holding a vote to decide on future of the country.

On 7 August Thais voted in a highly anticipated referendum on whether to accept their twentieth constitution since 1932. Critics claim the new constitution (usually referred to as the Charter) restricts democratic freedoms and reaffirms military control of the country, but on Sunday 61% voted in favour of adopting it. So what happened?

The military junta, officially called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), took power from the democratically elected Shinawatra government on 22 May 2014, claiming to wish to ‘return happiness to the people’ after months of political protests had deadlocked the nation.

The NCPO, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, has overseen two years of military rule characterised by major crackdowns on freedom of speech and assembly.

Keeping the public in the dark

The text of Thailand’s latest Charter was written by a junta-appointed committee, with no public consultation, and grants the NCPO far-reaching powers over the make up of the next government. At 105 pages long, the Charter is an intimidating document and access to the text was strictly controlled. A 34-page explanatory booklet was released by the election committee but has been criticised as being misleading.

The Charter is touted by its supporters as cracking down on corruption and placing greater checks and balances on politicians; but those who disagree say it removes the power from the people and hands it to a select few. However, given its length and the secrecy surrounding its creation, even one of the five election commissioners conceded that almost no one would have read the draft by the time they went to vote on it.

The junta attempted to suppress any debate around the Charter leading up to the vote. In April they passed a Referendum Act, which included vague provisions such as forbidding the publication of ‘false information’ or spreading information in a ‘violent, aggressive, vulgar or coercive’ manner.

If criticism of the Charter is deemed to amount to ‘incitement’, then the offending party could face as many as 10 years in jail. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights—an organisation that provides free legal aid to anti-junta activists—at least 195 people have been prosecuted under the Referendum Act so far.

Despite these restrictions on campaigning, the junta sent volunteers to ‘improve people’s understanding’ of the Charter ahead of the vote, even enlisting elephants to hand out flyers.

The referendum

The actual referendum asked the public two questions. Firstly, whether the voter accepted or rejected the Charter; and secondly, whether voters support the idea that, should there be a deadlock in the (elected) House of Representatives, the Senate can choose a new Prime Minister who does not have to be an elected official. Bearing in mind the 250-person Senate would be selected by the junta and has seats reserved for military officials, this step is seen by many as junta overreach.

Final numbers were confirmed by the election commission on 10 August: 61% support for the first question 61% and 58% for the second.

Leading up to the vote the junta expressed confidence in a 70% voter turnout; and although the final numbers were smaller (ultimately 27 million of around 50 million eligible voters), the turnout was still considerable. Despite fears of unrest or interference, no major disruptions have been reported and ANFREL, the Asian Network on Free Elections, described the day as going ‘relatively smoothly’.

A surprise result

The strong yes result surprised many both inside and outside the country and has been interpreted by many as a vote in favour of stability. Thais, who have seen 25 general elections and 19 coups in the last 84 years, are understandably sick of instability. Prior to the vote, General Prayut made it clear he was not going anywhere regardless of the outcome, and spread the line that the sooner the Charter is accepted the sooner an election will be held.

It is also clear that the Charter’s strong anti-corruption focus appealed to many on the ground who see the military as the only ones with the ability to clamp down on corrupt politicians and racketeers.

Plus lets not forget that, at the end of the day, the majority of those voting had not had the chance to read the text.

The yes vote now allows the junta to claim some level of legitimacy on the international stage. General Prayut has indicated an election will be held in 2017 and there will be at least a five-year transition to civilian rule. Ironic then that, despite a nation-wide referendum and scheduled elections, it doesn’t seem like Thailand will be heading down a democratic path any time soon.

Caitlin McCaffrie is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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