Thais will vote in their first post-coup election towards the end of next year, after approving in a referendum a new constitution that will usher in an era of paternalistic democracy.
The referendum was held on Sunday, August 7, but even before the official results were declared one of the supporters of the country’s 2014 coup announced plans to set up a political party that would nominate coup leader and current Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, as the post-election prime minister.
Paiboon Nititawan, a former member of the post-coup government’s National Reform Council, said he would set up a party called the People’s Reform Party. He invited retired military officers to join. Paiboon is described as a Buddhist activist – in Western political parlance, a leader of the religious right.
A strong majority – 61 per cent – of people voting in the referendum supported the draft constitution. The turnout was low – less than 55 per cent – but the result was clear.
A majority also backed a proposal to allow the Senate to take part in a joint sitting with the House of Representatives to select the prime minister whenever the lower house failed to agree on a candidate. For the first five years after the late-2017 election, the Senate will be appointed by the military.
From the currents in Thai public debate in recent times, it would seem that those who voted “Yes” did so from a mix of motives – a desire to retain the security blanket of an authoritarian government, a counter to the political instability of the past 10 years; consequent respect for Prayut; lingering disgust at the greed and corruption of previous elected governments; and/or a desire to gradually return to electoral democracy.
The drafters of the constitution did not hide the paternalistic nature of the system they wanted. The preamble to the constitutions says: “ Sometimes there have been constitutional crises with no solutions and partial causes thereof were attributed to the people who ignored or disobeyed administrative rules, corrupted or distorted power or did not recognize their responsibility to the nation and the public, resulting in ineffective law enforcement.
“It is therefore of necessity to prevent and resolve these problems by means of educational reform and law enforcement and to strengthen a moral and ethical system.”
Thailand has considerable experience in writing constitutions. The new one is the 20th since the end of absolute monarchy in in 1932.
The new document runs to 137 pages in an unofficial English translation and has 279 sections.
This is not unusual: Thai constitutions are long and detailed documents that try to cover off almost every perceived ill of politics and governance that led to the coup that tore up the previous constitution.
To try to ensure only good people are elected to the National Assembly, for instance, there are 19 grounds, listed over more than a page, for disqualifying people from standing for the House of Representatives.
The most detailed is ground No 10. It covers fraudulent, criminal and corrupt behavior, including official misconduct; fraudulent acts related to loans; drug running; illegal gambling operations,;and money laundering.
The description of the make-up, powers and role of the National Counter Corruption Commission covers almost five pages.
The constitution is strongly anti-corruption, a reaction to the experience of governments led or supported by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
That is its great strength.
Its weakness lies in its deliberate attempt to prevent the election of powerful governments, again a reaction to Thaksin. It does this through the election system, a combination of elections by constituencies and a party list.
To stop one party dominating, it provides that the more seats a party wins in constituency polls the fewer it can gain through the party list system.
This will lead to weak coalition governments that may be unstable and unable to respond firmly or promptly to issues that demand the attention of government.
Approval of the constitution lends legitimacy to Prayut’s post-coup government and he insists he will stick to his roadmap for holding elections before the end of next year.
People who voted for the constitution on the grounds that it opened the door to electoral democracy will be disappointed, however, as it will be highly difficult to amend the document.
The process will require something close to consensus among MPs, both those in the government and those on the opposition benches.
Thailand’s paternalistic democracy is likely to be the system of governance for many years to come, especially as the PM would no longer have to be a member of parliament.
This is why the proposed People’s Reform Party is eyeing the prospect of Prayut being the first post-election PM. Prayut at this early stage is not saying Yes; nor is he saying No.
Cameron Douglas, a businessman who visits Bangkok frequently