Junta faces first electoral test

How the Thai military would respond to a ‘no’ vote is unknown. Source: Wikimedia


Thai voters will return to the ballot booths on Sunday for the first time since the military took power in May 2014 in a referendum on the general’s constitution.

It is the 20th constitution since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932.

The charter was drawn up by a committee appointed by the military, which took power after months of anti-government protests against Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government.

It was Thailand’s 12th successful coup.

Under the proposed charter a military-appointed senate with seats reserved for officers would check the powers of elected MPs.

A separate question on the ballot paper will ask if the 250 appointed senators should be able to vote with MPs to select the prime minister.

“They will be sitting there to make sure all the reforms will be carried out and at the same time make sure the newly elected government does exactly what they’re supposed to do,” said General Thawip Netniyom, chief of the National Security Council.

The military-backed, royalist Bangkok elite, traditionally backs a heavily controlled form of democracy or autocratic rule and opposes the populist Shinawatra family, which has won every democratic election this century.

The draft constitution’s critics say it will do little to heal Thailand’s divisions and say it will further entrench the military and elite’s control over parliament.

Most divisive is the sections establishing a fully appointed senate, which could block the elected lower house, and increasing court powers that are already accused of political bias in favour of the metropolitan elite.

It is assumed the armed forces are keeping a grip on power to oversee the royal succession after ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88, dies.

Former general Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha has curbed freedom of speech and campaigning against the charter, with the 10-year prison sentences threatened.

“Rude” or “false” discussion of the draft is outlawed and has been used against activists distributing leaflets.

Two eight-year-old girls were charged under the new law for removing voter lists because they apparently liked the pink paper they were printed on. The two largest political parties, who agree on little, have both condemned the draft as undemocratic.

Prayut has promised to hold elections in mid-2017 regardless of Sunday’s result but all his previous election dates have been pushed back.

“The junta would probably stay in power longer and simply either create [another] constitution of its own or borrow a previous constitution,” said Paul Chambers, a Thai-based academic.