No wonder Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was confident when he announced he would vote “Yes” two days before the referendum on Sunday. The results confirmed what he might have known through internal polls. The draft constitution passed with 61.4% of the vote, compared to a “No” vote of 38.6% at the time of writing; official results could differ only a little. The voter turnout was 55%, or 27.6 million Thais who came out to cast their vote.
The mandate to give the unelected Senate the power to participate in the selection of the prime minister passed by 58.11% to 41.89%.
Only in the Northeast was the reject vote stronger, 51.42% to 48.58%. The surprise, however, was the close margin since the region is a Pheu Thai Party and red-shirt stronghold. They also appear to be slipping in the North where only five out of 15 provinces voted “No”.
This week the government will meet and reactions will follow from the various stakeholders. My take on the referendum and its consequences is as follows:
First, the government’s one-sided propaganda and management of the voting process was effective. The apparatus of the Thai bureaucracy, especially the army, police, teachers, and provincial officers from the Ministry of Interior have been knocking on doors at the grassroots level. This drew out supporters while also creating fear of going against the regime for those with opposing views. Many villagers did not bother to go out and vote as they could be seen as doing something wrong by not pleasing officials.
The scare tactic chued kai hai ling do (slaughtering the chicken for the monkey to watch) worked. Local politicians and student protesters were suppressed and arrested. An ex-Pheu Thai MP and the elected mayor of Chiang Mai from the locally influential Buranupakorn family were detained a few days before voting day after officials linked them to a conspiracy of letters criticising the draft constitution.
The opposition to the draft was limited in channels where people could express themselves freely. The red shirts’ Peace TV was closed down. Only in the last week and in a controlled television programme, debates were allowed. It was too little and too late. The government and the Election Commission, however, came out with a full public relations blitz on the charter from the very beginning. The EC’s information document sent to Thai homes summarising the key points of the draft constitution was highly suggestive on the positive side. Most people never got hold of the actual document they were supposed to vote upon.
Second, those who voted “Yes”, voted for stability and peace. The general feeling was if the constitution did not pass, there would be protests against the government and trouble in the streets. Some may not understand and some may even like the substance of what was asked, but the consequences in their minds was clear. If longer-term problems were to arise from the constitution, they could be dealt with later.
This attitude has been embedded in Thai society. The logic explains why Thais have supported coups in the past and the belief in the “knight on a white horse — phra ake kee ma kow to the rescue. Conflicts and confusion upset everyone.
To deal with the frustration, they just sweep away the problems under the rug. Or if someone will ride (a tank) into town, they can live with it, till the next round of conflict explodes.
Third, many voted for the constitution believing it will lead to elections next year. Many people do not like the present government so if democracy is back on track even in a limited form, the regime will go away. This, of course, is a misconception, since the control remains within the hands of the military and the technocrats. The mechanisms hidden in the constitution will start to operate and in this regard the actual consequences are not known. Reading between the lines, it looks like the country will be run by a technocratic regime with restraints on the free will of the people to determine their own future.
Fourth, the Thai culture of democracy is not as deep rooted as the admiration for authoritarianism. This is why those in democratic movements have underestimated Gen Prayut. Thais craved for a figure like Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat of the early 1960s, who was painted as decisive and able to speak his mind. Gen Prayuth plays the role well, projecting authority and as well as being a fatherly figure with the moral high ground. His use of Section 44 may not please those who believe in democracy but many Thais say as long as he gets the job done, black or white, it doesn’t matter.
A respected senior technocrat told me before the coup the conservative tide in the country is emerging again, in the form of a more authoritarian regime. The politicians were viewed as corrupt and inefficient. The political bickering leading to violence became intolerable. Thus the regime’s advocacy of anti-politician, anti-corruption and anti-mafia activities soothed the minds of many. Cleaning up the sidewalks of street vendors may seem funny but the urban middle class loved it. Among the “Yes” voters, Gen Prayut may be more popular than you think.
Fifth, the political class is partly to blame. The passing of the constitution and the power given to the appointed Senate to participate in the selection of the prime minister reflects how much trust the public has for elected politicians. True, the strength of the politicians to speak up is limited by the barrel of a gun pointing to their heads, but at the same time, they have not been able to present an alternative way out for the country. Democracy without substance will not win the hearts of supporters.
Politicians must rise to articulate a future for the country with a better vision than the technocrats are proposing in the constitution and the 20-year strategic plan. They must convince the public that a return to democracy is essential to the long term well-being of the nation and elected politicians will be responsible for their actions.
What’s next? The immediate attention will be on the organic laws to be drafted. If they are written with increasing limitations on freedom, dissatisfaction and potential conflicts could raise. The political party law will be the most watched, as more controls on parties are expected. The “set-zero” option is still in play, designed to realign political affiliations by requiring a re-registering of political parties.
Apart from the organic laws, the regime will try to pass many other bills through the National Legislative Assembly in the next year. An alert is on the so-called digital laws, to control the cyber world, with a new ministry in the pipeline. The tools to enforce command and control will be detailed in the upcoming legislation by asserting they are in line with the principles of the constitution passed by referendum.
Gen Prayut should use this “win” to reconcile the country. A thorough analysis of the polling results should be conducted. The country could be further divided if the regime over claims victory. I am particularly worried about the rejection votes of the three far South provinces. A reach-out approach for everyone to be included in the political process is needed.
Now is time to get everyone on board by letting all voices be heard in the debates leading to the election. If the voters gave the regime a respite, long-term stability can only be achieved with an open mind and more participation in the process.
About the author
Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.