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Thailand's military regime hopes to finally give the country a constitution, but on its own terms. With debate restricted in the run-up to the vote, Thai voters will now have the chance to speak up at the ballot box.
Since seizing power in Thailand through a May 2014 coup, the military junta National Council for Peace and Order has promised a constitution that would establish "true democracy" in the country, so far without a result. It presented a first draft last year, which was rejected in a December vote by the National Reform Council, a military-appointed body.
Shortly thereafter, the military set upon to develop a second draft constitution, whose fate the 50 million Thai citizens eligible to vote will decide on Sunday, August 7. The mood before the vote is tense, but restrictions on openly discussing the draft constitution have kept things quiet. "There is a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety," Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk told DW.
"This is, let me say, a very bizarre referendum," he said.
No real alternative
Surveys show no clear leaning for or against the draft constitution. The number of undecided voters days before the vote is striking.
But it may be because the military-drafted constitution, a hybrid of democratic and non-democratic elements, hardly presents a choice. "Regardless of whether the constitution is accepted or not, the military will remain an essential force in politics for the next five to seven years," believes a Bangkok-based expert of Thai politics, who wishes to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the topic.
In addition, the constitution would provide for the formation of a national reform steering assembly, to be peopled by members of the military and its supporters. The council would have the power to dismiss the government and institute military rule, in effect meaning that a coup mechanism would be written directly into the constitution.
"The constitution does not meet Western standards for a democracy," the political analyst said. "It would be a system whose government would always have a sword, held by the military, hanging over its head." It could be a step though from military dictatorship towards democracy, he believes, "if the constitution is seen as a first reform to be followed directly by others."
Such a viewpoint hasn't been popularly voiced, but neither has any other form of public discussion over the referendum. Criticism has effectively been outlawed, with a law passed specifically for the referendum that threatens fines or even a prison sentence of up to 10 years for the dissemination of false information. What counts as false information is, of course, up to the military to decide.
"Over the past few weeks, crackdowns have been launched against many people who were trying to hold critical assessments of the junta's constitution," Pravit said. 20 people have been imprisoned since May and a number of meetings at universities and other educational institutions have been prohibited. Political assemblies of five are more people have generally been forbidden since the military seized power.
Even supporters of the constitution are not allowed to express their views publically. The government has led what little discussion there is, having sent 350,000 canvassers throughout the country tasked with spreading information about the constitution. The military claims that the content of their explanations is as neutral as possible, but there are plenty of doubts about whether this has been the case. "Many people consider that it is an implicit campaign to endorse the military regime," Pravit said. "But I think it is in a gray area."
Seeing their influence at risk, Thailand's two largest parties have reticently criticized the draft constitution. "That is perhaps also a signal that both parties can decide against a hybrid system and maybe even come to a sort of collaboration," the Bangkok-based expert mused.
The power struggle between the two sharply split parties is threatening Thailand with profound political uncertainty. The Pheu Thai Party largely represents the country's newer elite, whose power base rests among the population, while the Democrat Party is closer to the entrenched elite, which draws support from the military, administration and royal household.
Until now, the legitimacy of the Thai government has been certified throughout its tumult by the popular king Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has ruled for seven decades but is now in critical condition. There are doubts about whether his likely successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, can wield enough influence to hold the country together.
The Thai government's legitimacy has been certified throughout its tumult by king Bhumibol (being pushed in the foreground)
According to the expert, the constitution will do little to ameliorate this problem. Instead, "a culture of consensus and compromise culture must first develop," he said, a task for which this constitution is the "wrong instrument."
The referendum is not without its significance, however. "If the charter is clearly approved without any vote rigging, then it seems the military will get a considerable perceived level of legitimacy." Pravit said. He therefore holds fraud for unlikely. "If the charter is rejected, particularly if a lot of voters vote no, then the regime will be in a difficult place to hold on to power."
The Bangkok-based expert believes that the referendum also has important implications for Thailand's international standing. If the draft passes, "there would be the opportunity to say that there has been positive change in Thailand, that the population has approved further democratic steps." The country would at least have some kind of a basis, though heavily shaped by the military, which would allow for normal international relations to resume. "If the constitution is rejected, that would make Thailand's return to eye-to-eye level partnerships difficult."