By Invitation

After a decade of polarisation, a new balance in Thailand

The Aug 7 referendum in Thailand yielded a surprising result, with most voters backing a charter drafted by the military government. The result shows that voters want compromise and reconciliation for Thailand, with both monarchist and democratic elements in the right mix.

After more than two years of military government, Thailand's voters have registered their voices in an unanticipated fashion.

On a turnout of 59 per cent from roughly 50 million eligible voters, the verdict on Thailand's second- ever referendum came out 61 per cent in favour of a military-inspired draft Constitution that will see a military-appointed Senate counter- balancing elected representatives in the Lower House.

This was a stunning decision by the Thai electorate on several grounds. It also clarifies Thailand's immediate political directions, putting a general election on the horizon in a "guided" sort of democratic rule thereafter.

The Aug 7 referendum result represents the first voter repudiation of the Thaksin camp in 15 years. Thai voters have not had their electoral say since July 2011 when they elected the Puea Thai party aligned to ousted and exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and led by his sister Yingluck.

During this referendum, however, the majority of Thai voters surprisingly opted for a charter written by a committee appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta which seized power by force in May 2014 amidst months-long political turmoil in the tussle between Puea Thai's "Red Shirt" faction and the opposing "Yellow Shirt" faction.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

Because Thaksin's political party machine has won all elections in Thailand since 2001 - it went along with a preceding junta-arranged Constitution in 2007 for the sake of having an election - voter results this time were the Thaksin camp's first-ever electoral defeat.

It is true that the pre-referendum campaign was not free and fair. Activists against the draft charter, including Puea Thai members, were harassed and coerced, some arrested. The junta managed and suppressed dissent through a "Referendum Act" its rubber-stamp legislature put out. The military government also deployed hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats to indoctrinate and influence voter choices in an effort to approve the Constitution. State media propaganda was used to the hilt to promote the charter.

But Thai voters are trying to say something through the referendum. They want cleaner government, electoral democracy, peaceful royal transition, and ultimately compromise and reconciliation for Thailand to have both monarchy and democracy in the right moving mix.

But while the referendum vote was not free and fair, its results were clean and clear. People knew enough about what they were voting for. It was not a referendum on a technically worded and wordy charter per se but a vote for or against the putsch and military government since.

Turnout was also higher than anticipated. The lower the turnout, the more officialdom under the junta can be mobilised to ram it through. But the turnout of 59 per cent this time was even higher than its precursor in 2007, which saw turnout and approval ratings both at 57 per cent. Apart from the 61 per cent approval on the charter, the second question of whether to allow an appointed Senate to join the elected Lower House in selecting a prime minister also received a 58 per cent endorsement. If they had disliked the military government since the May 2014 coup, voters would have rejected the draft charter the military essentially came up with.

There are also regional implications in the referendum's result. The most striking outcome was the "Red Shirt" north-east's rejection margin of just 51 per cent, compared with 62 per cent in 2007.

The north, south, and central regions, including Bangkok, all voted favourably in line with previous numbers. Some areas in the southern provinces overwhelmingly approved by more than 80 per cent.

However, unlike in 2007, the three southernmost border provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat voted heavily against the charter this time, sending a clear message that the virulent Malay-Muslim insurgency still demands concessions, accommodation and greater administrative autonomy from the Thai state.

On the whole, the referendum patterns in 2007 and 2016 follow a similar pattern. The military government under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha should not be complacent because the post-referendum polls in 2007 still went to an opposing civilian party under the Shinawatra family. Approving the Constitution back then was just a means of getting to the polling booth. It could be so again this time.

FED UP WITH CORRUPTION
This voter verdict suggests the Thai electorate is fed up with conventional politicians and corruption and graft. To be sure, the draft Constitution is lopsided and shifts power away from elected bases of legitimacy to unelected sources of moral authority. It was touted as anti-politician and anti-money politics on the premise that Thailand's political troubles emanate from elected politicians.

Not only did the Thaksin camp line up against it and lost, its opposing Democrat Party under Mr Abhisit Vejjajiva also postured similarly in vain against the charter, while a breakaway Democrat faction under Mr Suthep Thaugsuban went along with the military's constitutional preference.

The Democrat Party's split indicates that Mr Suthep may be the real power holder and that Mr Abhisit should make way for a new leader to give the party better electoral chances. Overall, Thailand's hitherto class of politicians lost in this referendum, although it is too soon to conclude that the vote results were in favour of the ruling generals.

For now, four takeaway voter messages appear to be at work.

First, as the charter was premised on combating graft, this was partly an anti-corruption verdict against run-of-the-mill politicians who regard elections as an electoral business for profit through graft.

Second, Thai voters have chosen to keep the election timetable on track. Their referendum preference is preliminary and their real say will be at the next general election.

Third, voters appear to prefer mutual accommodation and some sort of reconciliation. Letting the military have some leeway after the poll may be an implicit civil-military power-sharing approval.

Finally, while Thailand undergoes its royal transition, there is a popular preference for peaceful outcomes and preference for compromise in a hybrid Thai way, premised on the military government's own ability to stay away from violence against its own people and to minimise corruption and abuse of power among its own generals.

"Guided democracy" and "Thai-style democracy" can be cliches and euphemisms for undemocratic authoritarian rule and domination by Establishment conservative forces.

But Thai voters are trying to say something through the referendum. They want cleaner government, electoral democracy, peaceful royal transition, and ultimately compromise and reconciliation for Thailand to have both monarchy and democracy in the right moving mix.

It is the Thai people's way of trying to regain a new balance after a decade of polarisation and conflict.


  • The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline 'After a decade of polarisation, a new balance in Thailand'. Print Edition | Subscribe