A Vote for Dictatorship

Thailand's Referendum Strengthens the Junta

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at a news conference in Bangkok, August 2016. Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

On August 7, Thai voters opted to support military dictatorship. To be precise, they gave their approval to a new constitution that was drafted by a junta-appointed committee, which had seized power in a coup in May 2014. The charter proffers an all-appointed Senate with six reserved seats for senior security commanders, and provisions for a non-elected prime minister. With the approval of this document, the democratic reforms of the past 20 years were largely wiped out. The idea of firming up a strong parliamentary system, a core plank of the innovative 1997 “people’s constitution,” was now not simply forgotten, but was indeed banished.

The early August referendum had numerous parallels with a vote held on the 2007 draft constitution, which was also written under military tutelage but was far more liberal than the latest incarnation. Indeed, the entire situation felt familiar. Thailand has had more coups and constitutions since 1932 than any other country on earth: for reasons that remain somewhat baffling, every new military junta immediately abrogates the old constitution and begins the process of writing a completely fresh one. Unsurprisingly, in both the 2007 and 2016 referenda, pro-establishment areas of the country such as Bangkok, the central region, and the upper south voted mainly in support of the new constitutions, whereas voters in the northeast of Thailand—which is still mainly loyal to self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra—rejected the drafts. On both occasions, turnout was just below 60 percent.

Although the broad pattern of voting in 2016—61 percent Yes and 38 percent No—closely resembled the 58/42 split in 2007, the detailed results revealed some interesting changes. Only 22 out of 77 provinces fully rejected the draft, compared with 24 in 2007. However, another five provinces voted No to a supplementary question asking whether voters approved of a new procedure for selecting the prime minister by a joint session of parliament. This joint session would empower the 250-member unelected senate at the expense of the elected lower house. Approval ratings for the supplementary question were typically between three and five percent lower

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