After the junta-managed referendum was approved by voters earlier this week, Thailand plans to hold elections in November 2017, according to the military regime. As I wrote earlier, the charter contained numerous provisions that seem designed to weaken the power of the two biggest political parties, the Democrat Party and Puea Thai. The new charter will potentially make the lower house of parliament nearly unmanageable, and possibly pave the way for the unelected upper house, the judiciary, the military, and the bureaucracy to wield the real levers of power in the kingdom. Still, the charter passed with sixty-one percent of the vote, in an environment of intense repression that included bans on public gatherings to protest the charter, arrests of dissenters, and an expensive and nationwide campaign by the junta to promote a yes vote.
As Columbia University’s Duncan McCargo notes in a new piece for the Nikkei Asian Review, the referendum is not going to solve the deep divide in Thai politics, between the rural poor who comprise the majority of voters and middle class elites, mostly in Bangkok, who disdained the Shinawatra governments. Sixty-one percent is a solid victory. Yet is only a slightly higher figure than the yes vote for the last constitution, which was put before voters in a similar, though slightly less repressive post-coup environment in 2007. As McCargo notes, voters in this referendum may have chosen the yes option for a range of reasons, not simply because they approve of the army-backed charter:
“Most voters had to be content with short and highly misleading summaries provided in leaflets distributed by the Election Commission, which glossed over most of the controversial issues at stake. Those expressing critical views of the draft charter were openly derided and often ruthlessly suppressed by pro-government elements. The majority of those who voted ’Yes’ were voting in favor of promised elections, which the government has pledged to hold within 2017. Many clearly hope that approval of the charter will lead back to a degree of political normalcy. Those who voted ’No’ doubted the sincerity of the junta’s promises, and feared that the draconian draft would allow the military to retain a veto over the country’s politics for many years to come.”
No matter why voters approved the referendum, the armed forces have reestablished themselves as the central, most powerful institution in Thai politics. Since the coup, junta leaders have not only pushed through the charter but also cowed many prominent elected politicians. The army has overseen a period of repression more akin to the harsh eras of military rule in the kingdom in the 1950s and early 1960s than the less repressive post-coup period in 2007. The king and the queen are ailing and rarely involved in politics. The junta leaders have pushed into retirement or meaningless positions the few army officers who did not support placing the armed forces back at the center of politics. Puea Thai and the Democrats, despite both having reasons to oppose military rule, are unable to work together toward any common goals. Whatever Thais’ reasons for voting yes, the charter now provides a veneer of legitimacy to the military’s continued involvement in politics, and to the elevation of unelected, appointed men and women over elected politicians.
However, it now appears that the junta leaders may not be satisfied with stage-managing the referendum and leaving pro-military, unelected institutions with the greatest power. On the heels of a 1950s/1960s-style coup, they may be planning to ensure that army officers dominate parliament and actually run the next government. This would also be a throwback to Cold War-era Thailand, when military men formed political parties and ruled as civilians following coups. Yesterday, the Bangkok Post reported that a small political party that supported the May 2014 coup would try to enlist retired officers; the party may maneuver to get junta leader Prayuth chosen as prime minister. Prayuth has not commented on whether he would take up the offer, but he left open the possibility of serving in the next parliament. Don’t count out the prospect that the new boss will be the same as the old boss.