Tag Archives: referendum

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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Thailand constitutional referendum: all your questions answered

First published with the Guardian 3 August, 2016

What’s happening?

On Sunday, 7 August 40.4 million eligible voters in Thailand will head to the polls in a referendum for a new constitution. More than 200,000 police officers will be deployed at 94,000 polling stations on the day.

What is the voting for?

Voters will be asked two questions requiring simple yes-no answers:

Do you accept the draft constitution?

Should the Upper House of Parliament be permitted to join the Lower House in selecting a Prime Minister?

Why has the draft constitution proven so controversial?

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

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

Among the most controversial provisions is the NCPO appointment of the 250 seats of the Upper House in the next government. Within a bicameral parliament, an NCPO appointed upper house would mean a military-backed delegation are guaranteed a critical role in the next term. Critics say this could open the door for an unelected, military-backed Prime Minister.

What’s the context?

Since Thailand’s absolute monarchy ended in 1932, the country of 67 million has swept through nineteen different constitutions.

When ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 coup, Thailand entered a tumultuous political period of coups d’etat and elections, shaped along colour-coded lines of allegiance and protest. On one side are the so-called ‘red-shirt’ supporters, who are typically rural, working class groups and mostly back the Shinawatras. On the other side are the ‘yellow-shirts’, typically more urban, middle-class and firmly against the Shinawatras and their proxies.

In 2014 when demonstrations against Thaksin’s sister, then-premier Yingluck, led to her ouster in another military coup, the NCPO has been in charge of guiding the country back to the next democratic elections.

Who are the major players?

Thailand’s military-installed prime minister Prayuth , the man who spearheaded the military coup against Yingluck in 2014, the NCPO, the National Legislative Assembly and, to a lesser extent, former ‘yellow-shirt’ groups have all been pushing for a ‘Yes’ vote.

Two former prime ministers, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra, have publicly rejected the charter. ‘Red-shirt’ associated groups have also rejected the draft, while a number of student activist groups have been publicly campaigning for a ‘No’ vote.

How has campaigning been going?

Officially, campaigning for the referendum has been banned. The reality, however, has been a targeted suppression of ‘No’ campaigners.

On 21 July, a Red-shirt TV station was closed for 30 days, while over the past month, scores of activists and at least one journalist has been arrested under Article 61 of the controversial Referendum Act. The Act forbids any media from spreading “false information” which might influence voters, but also bans the spreading of “violent, aggressive, vulgar or coercive” information by any individual. Critics claim the imprecise, broad wording of the Act permits the targeting of ‘No’ campaigners.

The UN and multiple ambassadors have expressed concern of the clamp-down.

What is the likely outcome?

Thailand’s polls have proven to be as fickle as most, with the majority having the results looking tight with a small majority for the ‘Yes’ camp. However, the same polls also claim a large majority remain undecided.

With exit polling by media effectively banned, the exact results of the elections will have to wait until official announcements are made, up to three days after the event. However, it is expected a general idea of the result should be clear within hours of the polls closing.

What happens next?

A ‘Yes’ vote would allow the military-backed NCPO to claim legitimacy and prepare for elections slated irrespective of outcome for mid-2017. However, in the event of a rejected charter the NCPO would be obliged to offer another option, which could take months. When questioned about the possibility of a ‘No’ vote in the referendum, Prime Minister Prayuth quipped that he would simply write another one himself.

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Thailand Referendum: fears over fair vote as military cracks down on dissent

First published in the Guardian 3 August, 2016

Human rights groups have voiced concern about an upcoming constitutional referendum in Thailand, saying a ban on campaigning and a crackdown on dissent are preventing Thais from making an informed choice and potentially handing an advantage to the military.

More than 40 million voters will head to the polls on 7 August to give their verdict on proposed changes to the constitution that will, if approved, give increased power to the ruling military junta.

However, in the run-up to the vote, the junta passed a new law forbidding campaigning on the issue and also launched a crackdown on activists and the media.

Last month, Amnesty International warned that the Thailand’s controversial Referendum Act, which enshrined a possible 10-year jail sentences for anyone who defies it, was “unjustifiably restricting rights in advance of the referendum”.

More than 20 ambassadors from Europe, US and Canada also issued a public statement last month expressing joint concern about the ruling National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) suppressive actions.

Article 61 of Thailand’s Referendum Act has been specifically targeted for harsh criticism from human rights groups, with its severe penalties applying vaguely to “anyone who disseminates text, pictures or sounds that are inconsistent with the truth.”

Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Thailand, told the Guardian that such an atmosphere “does not allow Thai voters to make an informed choice.”

In place of open, public debate, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) has instead relied on promulgating summaries of the draft provisions on TV, radio, online and in leaflets.

While they are supposed to be neutral and independent summarisations, Sunai said: “I had the chance to read the publication and it is clearly biased. It is along the lines of NCPO propaganda…In a way the ECT ends up being part of the [vote yes] campaign, while on the other hand we see almost daily suppression of the No vote.”

For Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of local news site Prachatai, the vague remit of the ban on campaigning has hindered her staff members’ ability to effectively report on the constitution.

“Compared to previous votes, this is much different,” she told the Guardian, highlighting a growing sense of fear and self-censorship amongst both reporters and their subjects.

One month ago, Prachatai felt the full weight of the Referendum Act when one of their journalists was arrested and charged while covering the Vote No campaign of the anti-junta New Democracy Movement.

“We are hoping they drop the charge.” Chiranuch said.

Two weeks ago, Peace TV, a TV station supporting the ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra, was banned from broadcasting for 30 days, thereby missing the immediate build up and aftermath of the referendum.

Despite the strict new laws, some activists are determined to oppose the new constitution.

Rangsiman Rome, co-founder of the New Democracy Movement, told the Guardian he is actively campaigning against the constitution, despite the risks.

“The draft process has had no civilian involvement.” He said, referencing the ruling military NCPO appointed drafting committee.

“The main thing it represents is the NCPO, the main thing it will do is prolong the power of the NCPO.”

As a result of distributing leaflets opposing the constitution, Rangsiman and more than a dozen of his activist friends have already found themselves in violation of the Referendum Act and are now facing possible 10-year long prison sentences.

Criticism of the NCPO’s expansive suppression of dissent has been a growing concern since the junta and its leader, prime minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, came into power shortly after Yingluck Shinawatra’s removal in the 2014 military coup.

However, with the long-vaunted constitutional referendum approaching, the NCPO hope a victory deliver a mandate to kick-start their “roadmap to democracy”.

Yet where criticism has been permitted, it has been focused unremittingly on the content of the constitution itself.

Upon the draft charter’s public release in late March, a number of provisions immediately alarmed observers across political divides. Both Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party and their opposition Democrat party have publicly rejected the charter, citing articles which would weaken the elected lower house of parliament while extending the influence of the military.

The junta, meanwhile, has voiced a belief that the draft would provide the country with the means to operate with more stability, while combatting the endemic corruption that plagues the country’s politics.

“[The constitution] essentially enshrines the abuse of power and impunity,” Sunai said, highlighting the NCPO’s ability to appoint all 250 seats of the Upper House of Thailand’s Parliament. “With [those provisions], it doesn’t matter what else it says about the promotion and protection of human rights because that would not supersede the actions of the NCPO.”

Yet for Rangsiman and the NDM activists, the content of the constitution is almost besides the point. “To be honest, most people are not deciding on the content of the constitution,” he told the Guardian.

“What they are doing is they look at Prayuth and decide ‘Do I like what he is doing, or not?’ That is what this is about.”

 

 

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Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum

First Published on Vice January 16th 2014 

Inside one of Egypt’s polling stations. Photos by Amanda Mustard

For the past two days, Egyptians have been taking to the polls to officially pass judgment on thelatest iteration of the country’s constitution. As with most “yes” or “no” questions, there are only two outcomes. A “yes” majority would force interim President Adly Mansour to call for elections (either parliamentary or presidential) within a period of 30 to 90 days from the new constitution coming into effect. But, incredibly, there are no guiding procedures in the event of a “no” majority.

That might seem presumptuous, but, thankfully for the interim government, they have history on their side—there’s never been a “no” majority for any constitutional referendum in Egypt’s modern history.

The new constitution is widely perceived as an improvement on the 2012 version, which was drafted under ousted President Mohamed Morsi. But it’s not really all that different from its predecessor. Instead of starting from scratch, as was originally expected, amendments were made to contentious provisions in a long, drawn out process that finally ended with Mansour’s declaration of the referendum on December 12 of last year.

Despite the increased clarity about discrimination and violence against women, as well as a lengthened list of socio-economic rights, the draft still contains a number of articles that have worried analysts—like the one that could potentially weaken labor rights and freedoms—and maintains provisions that protect the continued use of military tribunals for civilians. Nevertheless, some are absolutely certain that the contents of the constitution are exactly what Egypt needs.

“I’ve read the entire constitution!” one man exclaimed proudly outside a polling station in the Cairo district of Shubra. “This is the constitution for Egypt. God bless Egypt and God bless [General Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi! I’ve written my favorite bits from the constitution here,” he smiled, showing off a piece of paper covered in writing.

The bomb-damaged front of the courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood

The opposition Anti Coup Alliance immediately declared their intentions to boycott the vote, worried that pushing for a “no” would somehow legitimize the incumbent powers and their new draft constitution. However, nothing resembling a boycott movement managed to work its way into the public consciousness. Instead, the “Vote Yes” campaign snapped up all the attention and advertising space.

By the first day of the vote, almost every lamppost along Cairo’s major bridges was adorned with a “Yes to the constitution!” poster. And giant billboards tenuously connect a “yes” vote to the 2011 revolution and the June 30 uprising that led to the fall of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The message was clear: this isn’t just a vote for a constitution, this is a vote for the revolution and the martyrs.

The first day got off to a bad start, when an explosive device went off outside a courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood, some two hours before the polling stations opened on Tuesday morning.  Although no one was killed in the blast, it prompted an increased security presence—the worry being that there were similar acts planned for throughout this referendum period.

Despite the violent start, voter turnout for the first day was relatively high, with Egypt’s minister of administrative development claiming that 28 percent of the country’s registered voters had cast their ballot that day alone. However, scattered fighting in various governorates turned deadly for some—the Interior Ministry put the death toll at 12 at the close of the first day’s voting, and 250 were arrested.

Crowds outside a Cairo polling station with a poster of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

On state TV, multiple feeds from polling stations all over Egypt showed long lines, with everyone smiling or waiting patiently.

Outside a school in the affluent neighborhood of Zamalek, a mother and her two teenagers strolled out of the polling station. Their fingers still wet with the voting ink, they responded to a question about how they had cast their votes. “Of course we all voted yes!” exclaimed the mother, Dina, apparently taken aback that there was even a possibility someone might vote no.

“This constitution is better than the one before. I didn’t vote in the referendum last year, but I knew it was my duty this time. It really is much, much better,” explained her son, Abdel Aziz, before she interjected: “There is justice here,” she said. “There is a future!” Her daughter Noor nodded in approval to what her brother and mother were saying. “We want everything to get better and this is the first step to that. No more fighting, a better economy, some stability,” she said.

“Stability” is a promise that seems to come back around during every voting period, and after three years of turmoil, death, coups and changing governments, the offer is more tantalizing now than ever. “The most important thing for Egypt right now is stability,” explained off-duty officer Mohamed Abdelmaher outside an Imbaba polling station. “Political stability, economic stability, social stability. Stability is absolutely the cure for all of Egypt’s problems.”

He held his young daughter’s hand tightly as he talked about the future of his country, repeatedly bringing up the need for stability and security. “I just voted ‘yes’ in the hope that there’s no more of that,” he said, pointing to the damaged facade of the courthouse. “God willing this is what the country needs.”

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Tensions Over Egypt’s Referendum Results

First published in the New Internationalist on December 24, 2012

On the evening of 22 December 2012, Egypt watched the primary results begin to trickle in after the divisive voting process of its constitutional referendum. Early figures indicate the ‘yes’ vote,  in support of the new charter, received around 64 per cent of the final result.  Only 3 of Egypt’s 27 governorates came out as ‘no’ victories, one of which was Cairo.

The referendum had been staggered over two consecutive Saturdays after a large number of judges refused to supervise the voting process in protest at President Mohamed Morsi’s 22 November Constitutional Decrees. They claimed Morsi’s self designated ‘immunity’ to them was an affront to the independence of their judicial branch of power.

Egypt’s provisional constitution mandates that members of the judiciary must oversee referendums and elections. The lack of judicial administration was a major worry for the president as it threatened any result’s legitimacy, but eventually 8,800 judges agreed to supervise.

Nonetheless, there have been accusations of voting improprieties during both rounds of the referendum: from vote rigging, to delays in opening polling stations, to absent judges.

The umbrella opposition group, the National Salvation Front (NSF), claimed to have witnessed ‘unprecedented rigging’ , including 750 violations across all 10 governorates in the first round. The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) referred some 350 complaints from the first round to the Supreme Electoral Commission.

Despite the questions raised, the result itself will come as little surprise to most.  The opposition forces have long been divided on how to approach this referendum and perhaps it was this discord that cost them.

The ideologically inclined were pushing for a boycott on what they see as a wholly illegitimate process, whilst the more pragmatic implored a vote no. Even the NSF were unable to decide where they stood until just three days before the first round of the referendum, when they finally called on the people of Egypt to vote no.

Early reports on turnout indicate around 32 to34 per cent of the electorate, the numbers are incredibly low. To put this into perspective, the UK’s lethargic ‘Alternative Vote’ referendum in 2011 managed to get 42 per cent of the electorate to take part.

Political ennui and fatigue are sure to have contributed somewhat to Egypt’s poor turnout, but once you consider the ubiquity of the constitution in local media and the heated discussions that always seem to arise once the topic is brought up, it seems implausible to put too much weight on apathy.

The problem is that, by definition, boycotts are impossible to tally up, thus the extent to which this may have affected the final results are unknowable, especially given that thre were debates within the opposition about strategies right up until the final day’s voting.

An Egyptian man who wished to remain anonymous stated, ‘If you boycotted this referendum, then don’t come crying to us [the ‘no’ voters] about the state of this country… What do you achieve by boycotting? Nothing! You had to vote no to confront Morsi’. The man has been camping in Tahrir Square for the past three weeks and proudly states he will stay there and protest ‘until I die’ if necessary.

For now, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi have the opportunity to capitalize on this victory.  They need to desperately turn their attention to softening the rhetoric, halting the ridiculous talk of conspiratorial coups and in so doing, hopefully slow the expanding disparity between the two sides.

Morsi recently postponed the implementation of his economic reforms in order to run a ‘social dialogue’ but with the NSF having refused every invitation to a national dialogue so far, it seems like the divisions of the past month, between Morsi’s Islamist supporters and the secular and liberal opposition, is likely to continue.

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