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Revenge of the Conservatives in Thailand

A Thai electoral worker prepares to start counting ballots at a polling station during a constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok on Aug 7, 2016.
A Thai electoral worker prepares to start counting ballots at a polling station during a constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok on Aug 7, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Sunday's referendum in Thailand which passed a new constitution by roughly 15.5 million Yes votes to 9.7 million No votes, ensures that for the foreseeable future electoral politics starting with a general election in 2017, will be played out only between very explicit red lines drawn by the conservative establishment.

The country's deep and dangerous political divide still persists; much of the north east and part of the north voted to reject the constitution.

Whether this divide can be addressed under what academic Thitinan Pongsudhirak has called "military-conceived" custodial "democracy" is not very likely. The current military-appointed government has made noises about addressing inequality in Thai society - but merely addressing economic inequality, even if that succeeds (and it will take time), is not enough; it is aspirational rights that need to be addressed.

The new constitution, billed as an anti-corruption charter, constrains the role of elected politicians even further than the constitution produced by the military in 2007 and similarly put through a referendum - which it also narrowly passed even as the north east and north, strongholds of former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, rejected it.

That constitution was evidently seen as not strong enough; in 2014 then-premier Yingluck Shinawatra lost her job, yet the rest of her Cabinet and government managed to cling on, and it took a coup d'etat to remove them. Under the new constitution, if a party that comes to power has its own ideas that do not quite hew to the line of the military-bureaucratic establishment, it will be easy to pull the rug from under both the prime minister and the Cabinet

Parliament will comprise 750 people - 250 Senators in the upper house which will be essentially appointed; and 500 elected MPs in the lower house. Of the 250 Senate seats, six are reserved for top commanders of the armed forces and the permanent secretary of the ministry of defence.

Electing a prime minister would need a majority of 376 votes out of 750. That means if the Senate votes in a bloc - which is a reasonable assumption - a person can become prime minister with 250 Senate votes and just 126 out of 500 elected MPs.

Unless a party or coalition of parties can form an unassailable majority, it may not even be able to elect a prime minister of its choice. Any prime minister will only function at the pleasure of the military-bureaucratic elites.  And the Constitutional Court in particular can intervene in vaguely defined "crisis" situations to decide political directions.

The run up to the referendum was characterised by nothing like the information and robust debate of a referendum or election. Any whiff of criticism of the draft constitution elicited a swift crackdown by the army, and charges under the military's draconian referendum law.

Most political insiders on the eve of the election, believed the draft constitution would be narrowly rejected; that it was not has been explained as a desire by Thais for forward movement of any kind towards an election, a lack of information about the implications of the constitution, or simply apathy; some 45 per cent of registered voters did not vote.

That there is also underlying anxiety over the royal transition - King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 88, hospitalised and increasingly frail - would undoubtedly have been a factor as well. 

Many Thais, privately at least given the constraints on any discussion about the monarchy, fear potential chaos at the passing of a King who for over six decades has been seen as the ultimate moral authority and last resort in a still hierarchical, even feudal society.

That the military is concerned is no secret; regime leaders and spokesmen have continually emphasised that Thailand is going through a sensitive transition which foreigners - a term usually used for western countries and commentators - may not fully grasp. 

From the army's point of view the monarchy in Thailand is intrinsic to national security. 

Henning Glaser, Director of the German-Southeast Asian Centre of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG) at Thammasat University, at a panel discussion days before the referendum, made the point that "Thai constitutions are essentially conservative, they try to preserve heritage." 

Writing in The Straits Times in May, Dr Thitinan, Director of Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) said the constitution was "part of a 20-year junta- sponsored reform drive to reset Thailand's political development."

Promulgating this constitution, he wrote, would invest the upper house with "unprecedented authority to supervise and scrutinise the post-election government.''

"It is like the military's own political party ensconced in the legislature without having to contest for people's support.''

The Thailand based German academic Michael Nelson, who is also from CPG at Thammasat University, on his Facebook page on Monday argued that "The conclusion from this referendum is that, among the Thai population, there currently is no majority for a democratic form of government. What we have witnessed instead is authoritarian consolidation."

The signs are that the business community, with an interest in stability and policy continuity, is not too fazed by the result of the referendum. Thailand's political conflict is likely to remain muted for the foreseeable future.

Speaking to The Straits Times on the eve of the referendum, a senior political figure who asked not to be named, said "If the constitution passes we will be back to where we were almost 40 years ago. And we will stay in the same place for another 20 years.''

"There will be no turmoil anytime soon'' he predicted. But he warned that "once people realise that they can't really choose the prime minister, they will recognise that the constitution is the problem."