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Making the best of Thai stalemate

Authoritarian regimes, it is commonly said, never hold a poll of which they do not have a good measure of the results beforehand. And so it has proved in Thailand, where the military junta got 61 per cent approval from voters who took part in the referendum on the military-backed draft Constitution. Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha said last Sunday's poll had "shown the world" what the Thai people desire and think about their country.

Thais, who have, since 1932, experienced 19 coups, of which a dozen have been successful, are used to spells of military governments. After all, no fewer than 12 of their 29 prime ministers have been from the military. That said, there is little to show that their appetite for a normal democracy is diminished in any way, however imperfect their political leaders may be. For that reason, the proposed new charter - which would be Thailand's 20th since the end of absolute monarchy - might not give Thai people a sense that they are voting for their true choices if, as promised, a general election is indeed held by the end of next year. This is because the new Constitution shrinks the power of elected parliamentarians vis-a-vis appointed ones, and includes clauses that cement military oversight of future elected governments. At the same time, the ruling junta gets to choose almost the entire 250 members of the Senate, which gets more powers of scrutiny. There is even a provision that the prime minister need not be an elected legislator.

Contrastingly, next-door Myanmar is emerging into democracy after decades of military rule. But with the second-biggest economy in Asean and a strategic perch at the crossroads of South and East Asia, Thailand unquestionably needs to put stability to the fore during these troubled times. Its politics has been marked by the fiscal profligacy of the populist Shinawatra political family, which debilitated government finances, and the practices of royalist elites, which heightened social inequality. After their bitter political clashes of the past, a measure of order is required but one, ideally, that should have come through Thais exercising their full democratic franchise.

Still, however imperfect the referendum, it is now time for the nation to settle down. Challenging times are upon the Thais - the King is old and in poor health, and economies are generally slowing. At 3.2 per cent in the first quarter, the Thai economy seems limp compared with faster-growing Vietnam and the Philippines. Security remains a big concern, highlighted by a series of coordinated bomb blasts in tourist hot spots over the past two days. Armed insurgents have been active for decades in the south, and the capital has seen deadly attacks as well. To the extent that the junta can keep things stable in this environment, it might be seen as the best of several bad choices, for now.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2016, with the headline 'Making the best of Thai stalemate'. Print Edition | Subscribe