On August 7th the majority of Thais voted to accept the new draft constitution. The result, at around 55% turnout, showed roughly 62% of those who voted chosen to approve the draft constitution, while 38% voted against. On the surface, the results are clear enough: the constitution passes and elections will now possibly be held in 2017. But what are the other takeaways?
1) Prayut’s government has received a big show of support. If nothing else, this vote comes as a mark of approval for the Prayut government, which has run Thailand for the past two years. While the constitutional referendum was not technically a referendum on the government’s performance, it is an open secret how the government would have wanted the referendum result to turn out. Prayut himself indicated on the final days before the vote that he would be voting “yes”.
As such, a way we can interpret the vote was that it was a vote of confidence in the Prayut government. By turning out a big “yes” vote, the government has been given what it has been lacking most: a sense of democratic legitimacy. Whether this sense will be widely shared through the Thai public is unknown. After all, Prayut has stated many times that regardless of the referendum result he would be staying on as leader, and so even a “no” vote would not have affected the government; in fact it would simply have prolonged Prayut’s rule because the constitution drafters would be going back to the drawing board for the third time. But it is still clear that the majority of voters chose to follow the government’s lead.
However, this does not mean that the Prayut government can remain complacent. Now that a new constitution has been approved, there will be pressure on the government to finish its job and return to democracy as soon as possible. In addition, the Thai economy is still performing poorly. But a government such as this one has never needed to enjoy popular support anyway, so simply receiving a big boost from a referendum result is probably enough to satisfy the government.
2) The power bases of the political parties have now been thrown in doubt. Technically, there was a ban on campaigning for or against the referendum. This was a poorly made decision that has dented perceptions of legitimacy for the result. But this did not prevent many political leaders from coming out and declaring how they would vote anyway. Two of the most prominent among these politicians were Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra. Both are former prime ministers and led the two largest opposing political parties: the Democratic party and the Pheu Thai party, respectively. Both declared that they would be rejecting the draft constitution. The Democratic party was more divided, with some in the party announcing that they would not be following the lead of their own party leader. The Pheu Thai party, on the other hand, were more united and actively against.
But this did not change the fact that when the results did come out, they mostly did not come out along party lines. Take, for example, the Southern region, the political power base of the Democrats: the region overwhelmingly backed the draft constitution. The central region, including Bangkok which is another Democrat power base, also chose to back the draft. The northern region, a Pheu Thai stronghold, was split, with the lower northern provinces choosing to back the draft, leaving only the northernmost provinces to reject it. Only the northeastern Isaan region, the staunchest of Pheu Thai power bases, overwhelmingly rejected the draft.
Generally speaking, the more affluent regions in the central and south were the driving forces behind the protests for reform that led to the military coup, and so of course they would have backed the government, while the other regions, fonder of the Shinawatra family and the Pheu Thai government, would have obviously rejected it. But it still reveals that many people in all regions chose to ignore the advice of the leaders of the political parties. Why is this? Could perhaps the global phenomenon of rejecting political leaders and “the establishment” now be occurring in Thailand? It’s still far too early to tell whether the influence of political parties are being diluted at all, but it has certainly been thrown in doubt. If anything, this result would be more worrying for the Democrats, particularly Abhisit. Abhisit may have chosen that he needed to demonstrate his commitment to his principles, but now he appears out of touch with both some of his party and his base.
3) The political landscape after elections are held will be reshaped for the better. Of course, Thai constitutions come and go; this many people know. In a country that changes constitutions more frequently than the United States changes presidents, it could perhaps be difficult to see why the result of a constitutional referendum could be significant. But nothing could be further from the truth for this draft. in particular.
The referendum posed not one but two questions: the first asked whether the draft constitution should be
accepted, and the second asked whether in the first five years of returning to democracy the entire parliament should be involved in the selection of the prime minister. This is particularly significant, because in the past the only the House of Representatives would vote for the prime minister. The Senate, which will be wholly appointed under the draft constitution, will now join the House of Representatives in selecting the premier. I’ve written previously about why there is indeed a case for making the Senate an appointed rather than an elected body in this post. As such, I do not wish to revisit the merits or democratic virtues of an appointed Senate in this post. Instead, I’d like to discuss the repercussions of having the appointed Senate be a part of selecting the prime minister.
Let us return to the 2011 election, when the Pheu Thai party won control of the government with about 35% of the popular vote. In a first past the post system, this obviously led to a large majority in the House of Representatives. Assuming that a party won a similar proportion of the popular vote in a future election and had a majority in the House. They would not automatically be able to form a government and would instead have to rely on other parties and senators for support. This will mean that Thailand’s political landscape could be reshaped. It is still far too early to tell what sort of government will emerge from elections in the next year or two. But it will mean greater scrutiny, more sharing of power, and possibly an increased role for minor parties in coalition governments. Pheu Thai will no longer be able to consider its dominance of roughly a third of voters as a guarantee for political dominance. But neither will the Democratic party be able to return to power without finding a way to earn a massively larger vote share. In a country as bitterly as divided as Thailand, this type of forced reconciliation may very well be the only option.
4) Thailand can move forward with political reform. The new constitution can be viewed as one of the most practical and useful mechanisms for political reform. Firstly, it will reform how Thailand’s democracy works. Let’s take a few examples: an appointed Senate that will now play a role in selecting the prime minister in the next five years and proportional voting that offsets the results of ‘first past the post’ are examples that comes to mind.
Of course, there will be critics who argue that this makes Thailand less, not more, democratic. However, I do not see that this draft constitution will be the grave of Thai democracy as so many have said. Firstly, an appointed Senate is nothing new, and I don’t see too many people complaining that the UK is not a democracy even when the House of Lords has nothing democratic about it. Representing people from all walks of life in the Senate may very well help add an enriching diversity to the political process. Those making a big deal out of how the unelected Senate can choose the prime minister should be reminded that that provision applies to only the first five years after returning to democracy. In many ways, this draft would actually enhance Thai democracy; after all, critics of ‘first past the post’ would certainly welcome the addition of acknowledging proportional voting in the electoral system. Overall, reports of the death of Thai democracy have been greatly exaggerated.
In addition, it is not for nothing that the draft has been marketed as Thailand’s ‘anti corruption constitutional edition’. The charter adds regulations on political corruption and obliges political parties to analyse and explain the value and risks of their proposed policies; these are all included in the new charter draft. Judging the performance of Thai politicians to this point, who can blame the public for wanting to rein in the worst excesses of their politicians? And we should remember that in any democracy checks and balances are necessary. If the checks and balances of the past did not work, there is nothing wrong with adding new ones. If the goal of government is not just about democracy but also accountability , this constitution goes a long way to help ensure it.
5) There is now democratic sanctioning of aforementioned reform. Reform has been a buzzword for so long now in Thailand, but it was used most often during the PDRC protests in 2013 and 2014. It has always been demonstrated that there is a clear appetite for reform, particularly in the Bangkok and southern middle and upper class which formed the backbone of the PDRC. However, there has never been confirmation of general support through a vote. After all, even if hundreds and thousands of people those to participate in the PDRC protests, this would never amount to even a few percentage points of the Thai population. With this constitution draft acting as a mechanism for reform, the approval of this draft has effectively given this general concept of the need of change in Thailand’s political system a democratic rubberstamp.
Additionally, even outside the PDRC politicians and experts across the political spectrum have agreed on the need for reform. However, there has never been an agreement on what reforms Thailand must adopt. The adoption of this draft constitution also acts as a consensus on the nature of reforms in which Thailand’s political institutions must undergo.
The coming days, weeks and months should add clarity to the path Thailand will take. It is extremely important that Thailand continues to move along the path of political reform and national reconciliation. Let’s hope that this can be achieved.