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Duncan McCargo: Thailand's constitutional referendum is not a slam-dunk

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Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha receives a flower while arriving at a weekly cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok on Feb. 2.   © Reuters

After a couple of false starts since its May 2014 coup, Thailand now has a draft constitution, and a referendum on adopting the text has been set for Aug. 7.

      There has been only one previous referendum in Thai history: the August 2007 vote on the constitution drafted following the previous military coup. On that occasion, the new charter was approved by a vote of 57% to 42%, but the national picture was quite mixed. The northeast region rejected the draft, with the result that 24 of Thailand's 76 provinces gave it the thumbs-down. Fortunately for the junta in power at the time, support was very strong in most southern provinces.

      On the face of it, the Aug. 7 draft ought to pass, not least because the ruling National Council for Peace and Order has used exactly the same arguments that the Council for National Security, a previous junta, did in 2007: Vote "yes" in the referendum so that we can hold a general election and get back to normal. (The current junta has said the five years after the new charter is adopted will be a transitional period, after which civilian rule will be fully restored.) While the 2007 constitution was widely seen as flawed, most critics assumed then that it could easily be amended later.

      Fast-forward nine years, and the situation is both similar and different.

     Even those who initially supported the May 2014 coup as a means of rescuing the country from deep social divisions are becoming slowly disillusioned with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's rhetoric of restoring unity and national happiness. The legitimacy of the regime is being undermined, not least by the flagging economy, endemic drought and growing concerns about ill-conceived megaprojects, including power plants, dams and rail networks.  

      Again, the constitution on offer is full of problems. In September, the NCPO discreetly asked members of the National Reform Council, a 250-member body appointed to oversee reforms, to vote down a more liberal draft prepared under the chairmanship of Borwornsak Uwanno, the chief legal ideologue of the monarchical network.

MILITARY BIAS   After senior conservative jurist Meechai Ruchupan presided over the drafting of a much more authoritarian document issued in January, the NCPO still insisted on changing the Senate to an all-appointed 250-member body that would include six seats reserved for senior military figures -- shades of the Myanmar parliament, and a throwback to earlier decades of "semidemocracy." The result is a constitution that pleases virtually nobody except the junta, which appears to envisage maintaining military control over the supposed "reform process" for the next 20 years -- although oddly enough, virtually nothing has actually been reformed since the May 2014 coup.

     The latest Meechai draft has been harshly criticized by Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva and by prominent figures in the anti-Thaksin movement -- who fear a return to power of elements loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a coup in 2006 -- as well as by pro-Thaksin politicians and social activists across the board. The current draft constitution is transparently dedicated to extending military jurisdiction and veto powers over the political process.

     Under these circumstances, it is hard to see how the NCPO -- despite seeking to suppress all criticism of the draft through a combination of media restrictions and intimidation of both politicians and activists -- will be able to achieve the resounding "yes" vote that would vindicate the junta's two years of work to restore national happiness. The best-case scenario is that the draft passes by a small margin, perhaps a slimmer one than in 2007.

     But there is a very real chance the draft will be voted down. The majority of the Thai population is registered in the populous north and northeast, where anti-military sentiments are widespread and loyalty to Thaksin is strong, and where many feel that trying to play along with the NCPO's vision of a sham democracy is a game not worth the candle. The junta may be playing for time, believing that voter rejection of the referendum would simply justify a further extension of military rule. This view overlooks the voter expectations that referendums generate and the dynamics that result from their outcomes. When the Scottish National Party failed to secure a mandate for independence from the U.K. in 2014, party leader Alex Salmond had to resign immediately.

     The same applied to Norway's failed referendum on joining the European Community in 1972, when the pro-membership prime minister had to quit, and to the Quebec referendum in 1995 regarding independence from the rest of Canada, when the pro-separatist premier of Quebec was obliged to step down. If Britain votes to leave the EU in the referendum to be held in June, the career of Prime Minister David Cameron will be over; he could be out of his official residence at No. 10 Downing Street in a matter of days.

     Thailand is not the U.K., however, and Prayuth may be able to hang on to his position for quite a while even if the NCPO loses the Aug. 7 vote. But the strongman aura of the junta will never be the same again. If the new constitution fails to receive a ringing endorsement, military leaders will look less like invincible masters of the universe, and more like inept bumblers who have become tone-deaf to public sentiment.

     If not the beginning of the end, the Aug. 7 referendum may well prove the end of the beginning, paving the way for more overt shows of public discontent. At some point, the military may decide that the time has come to replace Prayuth with a more articulate, cool-headed and pragmatic figure -- ideally one who is willing to make a deal with the country's frustrated politicians, including the pro-Thaksin side. For now, a new elite pact would be Thailand's best-case scenario.

Duncan McCargo is a professor of political science at the University of Leeds and a visiting professor of political science at Columbia University.

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