Thailand votes in favour of military-backed constitution

First published with the Guardian 7 August 2016

Thailand has overwhelmingly voted to accept a new military-backed constitution, despite fears among critics that it will undermine the power of the next elected government. The Election Commission of Thailand released its “unofficial” results just hours after the polls closed on Sunday.

With 90% of the votes counted, about 61% of voters had backed the new charter – the country’s 20th constitution since 1932. A 55% turnout fell well short of the 80% the commission had forecast, falling short even of the 57% who voted in the country’s last referendum in 2007.

Wantana Kasetsalee, a Thai parliamentary officer overseeing a polling station in Bangkok’s Ekkamai neighbourhood, told the Guardian there were fewer voters at her station than previous elections, yet she never doubted the outcome, and laughed when asked which way she voted. “Yes! Of course yes, [this constitution is] more useful for the people.”

The commission said the unofficial tally meant some 27.6 million Thais had voted atmore than 95,000 polling stations.

Having taken power in a 2014 coup, Thailand’s interim, military-backed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) had presented the referendum as a major step on its roadmap to “fully functioning democracy”.

It claims the new constitution will enhance the ability of the next government to fight against corruption, while ensuring that the current programme of reforms will not be cut short. However, rights groups say the constitution extends too much power to the unelected NCPO, meaning its influence would remain well past its interim tenure.

The NCPO, which toppled the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup in May 2014, has stifled the media and banned political gatherings. Ahead of the referendum, political rallies and open discussion about the constitution were banned, and criticism of the draft was made punishable by 10 years in jail. The targeted suppression of no vote campaigners resulted in what Amnesty International called “excessive, unnecessary and unjustifiable restrictions.”

On Sunday morning, in the Phaya Thai district of central Bangkok, the interim premier and leader of the NCPO, Prayuth Chan-ocha, cast his ballot before urging the country’s 50 million-strong electorate to follow his lead. “This is about the future of Thailand … let’s create a landslide [turnout] and make history.”

One woman in the crowd interrupted Prayuth, shouting: “Can you manage the country? Can you protect the country?” She was then quickly taken away by security.

Yingcheep Atchanont, a member of the ad-hoc Referendum Watch Network, told the Guardian that while it had concerns, no major voting irregularities had been witnessed by the group. “We have [received] a lot of reports, but they are mostly small things.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said the passing of the constitution “reinforces the trend, not just in Thailand but worldwide, in the popular disenfranchisement with politicians, money politics, corruption”, highlighting both the failures of the old political parties in motivating their supporters, and the NCPO’s spotlight on corruption.

“The military has been astute to capitalise and exploit this popular will against the political class. They’ve had effective propaganda in demonising politicians as being corrupt and corruption being the root of Thailand’s problems,” he said.

Approval for the charter also transfers to an approval of the military junta. “Before [the NCPO] had no popular mandate – they took power by force, and since then they’ve been running on empty,” Thitinan said. “This time, they will claim some legitimacy and go full steam ahead. The danger now is that they will be overconfident.”

Prayuth has promised elections in 2017.

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