Bangkok – Thailand’s first-ever referendum has endorsed a new military-backed constitution for the kingdom but it was no landslide victory.
According to a final count of ballots cast, only 57 per cent of the people who bothered to vote Sunday supported the new charter, with 42 per cent rejecting it. And despite being the country’s “first-ever” referendum, the novelty value was insufficient to draw the masses to the polling stations.
Only 57.6 per cent of the eligible voters voted, far below the usual turnout at general elections. More worrisome for Thailand’s current leadership, some 62 per cent of the population in the north-east region rejected the charter.
The north-east, the most populous and most impoverished of Thailand’s regions, is also the political heartland of former populist prime minister Thaksin Shinwatara who was deposed by a military coup on September 19, 2006.
Bangkok, the central plains and the southern provinces, where the anti-Thaksin movement was strongest, approved the constitution while the north was nearly 50/50. Army commander-in-chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, head of the junta that ousted Thaksin, conceded that the referendum outcome in the north-east was “a lesson for the government to study.”
Political observes say the message is pretty clear.
“The problem is that after this result they (the military) are going to be very worried about the general election,” said Chris Baker, a political analyst and co-author of Thaksin The Business of Politics in Thailand. “If those who voted against the constitution were sending a protest against the junta and saying that they are going to vote for pro-Thaksin parties, then that is about 40 per cent of the constituency,” noted Baker.
Thailand is expected to hold a general election on December 16, this year, in keeping with the post-coup timetable set by the junta. Since the coup, the Council of National Security – as the junta styles itself – and its appointed “interim” cabinet have done their best to remove Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party from Thailand’s political equation. The military overthrew Thaksin on charges of mass corruption, undermining democratic institutions and dividing the nation.
Thaksin has been living in self-exile in London for the last year where he has kept himself busy, and in the news, by buying the Manchester City football club, which just happened to win its first game against Manchester United on Sunday – referendum day. In Thailand, Thaksin faces an arrest warrant for failing to testify in an abuse-of-power case against him and his wife Potjaman. Other corruption charges are pending.
Thailand’s Constitution Court on May 30 disbanded the Thai Rak Thai Party and banned its 111 executives, including Thaksin, from politics for the next five years. The old TRT clique, however, includes another 200 formerly elected members of parliament, who are now gearing up to contest the December polls under new non-Thaksin banners. But the junta has already done its best to make sure that neither Thaksin nor some Thaksin-like politician will ever be able to rise to such a pinnacle of elected power again.
The referendum-endorsed 2007 charter, drafted by a military-appointed committee, has essentially weakened Thailand’s elected politicians and strengthened the hand of the bureaucracy and the military.
For instance, the 2007 charter mandates that nearly half of the Senate body will be appointed by a seven-person committee selected from Thailand’s judiciary. Besides dragging the judiciary into Thai politics, this will also give the Senate tremendous clout over the elected Lower House, including the right to launch impeachment motions.
“This will be a way of bring the elite into control,” said Jon Ungprakorn, a former senator under the elected system.
“The senate will become a place for retired civil servants,” he predicted.
Even more worrisome than the 2007 constitution is the pending National Security Act, also being pushed by the military, which promises to give the army commander in chief martial law powers above and beyond the prime minister.
“This act will allow the military to institutionalize themselves,” warned Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Thailand’s Institute of Security and International Studies.
One good outcome from the referendum’s lukewarm mandate for the charter, is that the military may now think twice about pushing through its frightening national security act. “I think they will be careful not to do something now that is going to stir people up, because now the country is totally divided, much more so than it was before the referendum,” said Baker.