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The conundrum of Thailand's resounding referendum result

Officials count votes on Sunday evening Aug. 7 after Thailand's referendum on a new constitution. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

The overwhelmingly favorable result of Thailand's second-ever referendum has much deeper and wider significance than as a mere verdict on a military-backed constitution. Thailand's ruling generals under the National Council for Peace and Order, who seized power in May 2014, can now claim a semblance of legitimacy because the constitutional referendum was partly a people's judgment on their putsch and performance in government since then. Conversely, the astounding approval of the charter is a major blow to established political parties and, more broadly, places a big question mark over the cause of democratization around the world. For Thais, approval was partly a way to keep polls on course for next year or early 2018, as pledged by the NCPO, and a way to send a message against corruption and money politics, if not a validation of military rule as such.

Thailand's constitutional outcome evokes the result of the country's first ever constitutional referendum, in August 2007.  Voter turnout back then was 57% and the approval rate was at the same level, compared to the 74% average ratio for key general elections since 2001. With the weight of officialdom, from the bureaucracy and armed forces to elements of the pro-coup coalition against the previous elected governments of the Shinawatra clan (led by former Prime Minister Thaksin and later his younger sister Yingluck), the lower the turnout, the more effective was the organized pro-charter campaign and accompanying propaganda against graft-prone politicians. This time around, the government's coercive tactics against dissent and a new  law against anti-charter movements also neutralized and subdued those who would have otherwise mobilized to reject in greater numbers.

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