Thailand's junta can breathe a sigh of relief, but only for the moment. The result of its Aug. 7 referendum on a new constitution has to be measured against a similar poll held in 2007: on both occasions, voters approved a charter drafted by a military-appointed committee created in the wake of a coup d'etat. In this case, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's National Council for Peace and Order achieved a 61% per cent approval rate for the draft constitution, according to preliminary results from the country's Election Commission -- as against 57% in favor nine years earlier. It is an improvement, of sorts, but not a dramatic one, and enormous bureaucratic effort went into achieving this outcome.
On the face of it, it may seem surprising that the majority of Thai voters expressed support for a charter that will usher in a wholly unelected upper house for parliament -- with six of the 250 seats reserved for senior military officers -- and leaves scope for appointment of a non-elected prime minister.
After all, successive general elections in Thailand since 2001 have all resulted in victories for parties linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled nemesis of the country's military and royalist establishment. Since the majority of Thai voters are broadly pro-Thaksin -- especially in the populous north and northeast regions -- why would they support a constitution that appears intended to undermine Thaksin's power base?
Factors behind the vote
The key to understanding the referendum is to recognize that the text of the constitution had little to do with the way people voted. Hard copies of the document were virtually impossible to obtain. Most voters had to be content with short and highly misleading summaries provided in leaflets distributed by the Election Commission, which glossed over most of the controversial issues at stake. Those expressing critical views of the draft charter were openly derided and often ruthlessly suppressed by pro-government elements. The majority of those who voted 'Yes' were voting in favor of promised elections, which the government has pledged to hold within 2017. Many clearly hope that approval of the charter will lead back to a degree of political normalcy. Those who voted 'No' doubted the sincerity of the junta's promises, and feared that the draconian draft would allow the military to retain a veto over the country's politics for many years to come.
While the referendum result will be hailed as a victory by Prayuth, who had displayed increasing nervousness about his own political future in the lead-up to the vote, the results need to be measured against the goals set by the generals when they seized power in May 2014. The NCPO insisted that it planned to "return happiness to the people" by restoring national unity; Prayuth himself wrote a song promoting this theme.
These idealistic-sounding phrases alluded to the deep divisions which had plagued Thailand over the previous decade, divisions reflected in massive street demonstrations by anti-Thaksin and pro-Thaksin forces in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2013-14, and seen in election results that polarized the nation into "yellow" (anti Thaksin) and "red" (pro-Thaksin) geographical regions and social groups.
In order to achieve its self-proclaimed goal of national reconciliation, the military needed to obtain both a high voter turnout and overwhelming popular support for the draft constitution. In the event, neither objective was realized. Turnout was about the same as in 2007, barely 60%, and far short of the Election Commission's fanciful 80% target. Meanwhile, the roughly 60/40 split in Yes/No ballots continued to reflect a profoundly divided population that voted on regional lines.
Same old problems
Thailand still faces exactly the same problems as it did before the May 2014 coup. People in the north and northeast are deeply wary of the national elite and are broadly sympathetic to the pro-Thaksin cause. Greater Bangkok and the upper south lean in the opposite direction. If the gap has narrowed, it is only by a few percentage points. In December 2007, a pro-Thaksin party won the first post-coup general election, thereby demonstrating that majority support for a military-backed constitution does not mean voters are necessarily enamored with the world view of the charter drafters. In Thai general elections, voting is compulsory, and parties and candidates mobilize voters -- many of whom work far away from their legal places of residence -- to return home and turn out in force. None of this applied to the Aug. 7 referendum, which is therefore not a good predictor of likely future election outcomes.
Prayuth may well be inclined to see the country's endorsement of the constitution as a vote of confidence in his leadership. That would be a mistake. Even the Bangkok middle classes, his core supporters, are starting to grow weary of the prime minister's hectoring tone and long-winded Friday night television addresses. Thais typically begin to turn on their leaders after two or three years, and the public mood can turn hostile very quickly. The junta would be well advised to bail out while it is still ahead. The constitution draft may have been passed, but this government is clearly far from having returned happiness to the whole Thai population.
Duncan McCargo is a professor of political science at the University of Leeds and a visiting professor of political science at Columbia University.