Thais will vote in a referendum on Sunday (August 7) to approve, or reject, a new constitution. This will be the post-coup government’s second attempt to implement a new national charter.
The constitution would usher in a form of parliamentary government but the military would retain the power of veto: the system could not be regarded as democratic as the word is understood elsewhere.
For Thais voting on Sunday, the effective choice is between more military rule and more military rule.
This might explain an extraordinary feature of the pre-referendum polling conducted by an academic group called Nida Poll: they have consistently found 60 per cent of respondents saying they are undecided about whether even to vote.
Some 30 per cent say they would vote in favour of the draft constitution, which is strongly anti-corruption.
The Nida Poll (produced by a graduate university called the National Institute of Development Administration) foreshadows a low voter turnout. On their polling numbers, this would suggest the referendum would be passed.
The Election Commission, however, says it is shooting for an 80 per cent turn out. If achieved, it would be a record for Thai elections.
The referendum is important to the military, which has ruled Thailand since staging a coup in May 2014. In a country where the rule of law is fragile and form often rates more highly than substance, a form of law is seen as necessary. This is especially true for the military, as a rules-based organisation.
After the coup, the leaders did what coup-makers do in Thailand. They tore up the existing constitution and promulgated an interim document.
Eventually they need a permanent constitution to provide a structure for the type of governance they want to impose. If passed in the referendum, the draft charter would become Thailand’s 20th constitution since the abolition of absolute monarchy 84 years ago.
This is the junta’s second attempt at devising a new constitution. The first was withdrawn. It would have given a military-dominated committee power to take over executive and legislative functions in times of national crisis. Wiser heads in government circles decided this was going too far.
The second draft, however, still gives the military continued authority, to be exercised through the Senate. A 250-member Senate would be appointed by the military for the first five years. This would give them effective legislative veto over the life of the first government and the first year of the next one.
Thais will be asked a second question in the referendum: would they agree to the Senate and the Lower House voting together to elect the prime minister?
A joint sitting would be held when the Lower House failed to agree on who the prime minister should be – a likely occurrence, as the proposed voting system will make it mathematically almost impossible for one party to gain a majority.
The House of Representatives would have 500 members, so a joint sitting would have 750 voters. If the 250 senators voted as one, they would need just over one quarter of Lower House members to join them to be able to pick the leader.
The prime minister would not have to be an elected Member, leaving the way open for the military to have their nominee appointed.
Sunday’s referendum is meant to legitimise this continued military authority. But, being Thailand, the referendum has the form of a popular vote, without the substance.
Government efforts to educate the voters have been lackadaisical: its focus has been to block criticism. It eventually agreed to allow TV debates but these were held only at the provincial level, were edited by the Election Commission and were aired on weekday afternoons.
Political meetings of five people or more remain banned, so organised opposition was meager. Leaders of Pheu Thai, the party of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, urged a No vote in a series of individual statements.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the conservative Democrats, also called for a No vote. He appeared alone on stage when he made his statement. He said this was because of the ban on political meetings but it is also the case that many of his colleagues disagreed with him.
The Government suppressed dissent through a referendum law that would impose fines and imprisonment on people who criticized the draft in such a that distorted its meaning or fomented violence. Well over 100 people have been charged under the Act.
The No campaign has been stifled by intimidation.
As people are nervous about speaking out, it is likely that the high “don’t-know-if-I’ll-vote” figure recorded by Nida Poll reflects a reluctance to discuss the issue with anyone – especially with strangers. They simply stop the conversation at the first question. If so, most of the No sentiment, however strong it might be, is hiding there.
One thing is not clear: what will happen if the people vote No.
The Prime Minister, former Army chief Prayut Chan-0-cha, has refused to say what he will do if the referendum fails – beyond saying he would have to set up a third constitution drafting committee.
It would be more than a surprise, however, if another draft were any more liberal than the current one.
Which is why the choice comes down to military rule or military rule.
Cameron Douglas, a businessman who travels to Bangkok frequently: