Supachai Somcharoen, chairman of the Election Commission, casts a demo ballot during an event to promote Sunday’s constitutional referendum, Aug. 4, 2016.
Thai people go to the polls Sunday to vote on a draft constitution that would cement military control over Thailand’s political institutions and usher in general elections sometime next year, if passed.
As many as 40.4 million voters – 80 percent of the electorate – are expected to vote on the proposed charter and on a clause it contains that would allow 250 appointed senators and 500 elected MPs to pick a new prime minister, according to Thailand’s Election Commission.
Polls are open across Thailand from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with initial results announced that evening and official results three days later, officials said.
The military government has worked hard to promote the charter by various means, including intimidating critical voices and quietly lobbying community leaders at the village level.
Civil servants, military cadets and others have been sent out on foot and even on elephants as part of a door-to-door nationwide campaign to encourage people to go to the polls.
Observers say a yes vote is key to the legitimacy of the Thai junta that came to power in a May 2014 coup promising to end a decade-long political crisis and restore democracy.
There is no clear official position as to what the government would do if the referendum does not pass, yet the outcome of Sunday’s vote is hard to predict.
“[B]ecause the junta has made it so hard to express dissent in Thailand, it has also created a situation in which voting no on the charter could be, for many Thais, the only way they have to show displeasure at the coup government,” Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank, wrote earlier this week.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told reporters this week that he would not step down should the referendum fail to pass. He insisted that his administration was committed to a general election that he said can only come about with a new constitution in place.
‘Return to normalcy’
If passed, the charter would increase the size of Thailand’s Senate by 100 members and allow the junta to hand-pick all 250 of its members. Six of those seats would be reserved for chiefs of the armed forces.
The constitution also opens the possibility of a non-elected person becoming prime minister, its critics say.
Authorities have been promoting a yes vote with the concept of “return to normalcy,” while in 2007– the last time Thais voted in a constitutional referendum – the slogan was “vote yes and amend later.”
The current draft charter makes future amendment extremely difficult, according to Supalak Ganjanakhundee, a senior editor at The Nation newspaper in Bangkok.
Besides obtaining a simple majority in the 500-seat Parliament, an amendment must have support from at least 20 percent of opposition parliamentarians and one-third of the 250 seats in the military-appointed Senate, he said.
Leaders of two leading political parties, the Pheu Thai Party and the Democrats, voiced objection to the draft constitution in recent days as the government relaxed its grip of freedom of expression and allowed town hall discussions on the draft charter across the country.
But there were still limits to what could be said. At least one forum in Ubon Ratchathanee province was called off when it was discovered that the organizer had invited an outspoken Pheu Thai Party politician, Chaturon Chaisaeng, as one of the panelists.
View from the south
In Thailand’s southernmost provinces, where ongoing insurgency violence has claimed 7,000 lives since January 2004, military officers urged community leaders to mobilize villagers to vote “yes” on Sunday.
While the military did not go as far as suggesting that a “yes” vote would restore peace to this historically contested region, they argued that the draft constitution would bring an end to the decade-old political crisis at the national level
Many experts agree that political stability at the national level would help make the atmosphere more conducive for peace talks in the far South.
A clause of the draft charter singling out Theravada as the branch of Buddhism to be “promoted and supported” by the state has drawn notice in this Muslim-majority region, according to Ismail Haji Wancik, a communications officer at the Patani Institute, a local civil society organization.
That clause could set an unwanted precedent if other religions start to demand that their particular sect be mentioned in the Constitution, Ismail said, voicing concern.
This point has provided ammunition for pro-Thaksin Shinawatra politicians in the South in their campaign for a “no” vote, he said. Thaksin was ousted in 2006 and his sister, Yingluck, in 2014, by military coups.
Amorn Wanichwiwatana, a spokesman for the Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC), told reporters on July 29 that Muslim politicians had been “distorting the draft constitution” in their attempt to persuade Muslim voters to reject it. He insisted that the draft charter was designed to protect Buddhism and other religions in the country.
Behind closed doors, Bangkok-based diplomats have expressed doubt that the charter would bring about political stability because the drafting process lacked inclusiveness.
But despite the repressive atmosphere in the lead up to the vote, balloting itself is likely to be fair, according to Kurlantzick, the Council on Foreign Relations scholar.
“Though there may be some fraud, the actual voting will likely be relatively free and fair; there is little evidence to suggest that the coup government plans to blatantly rig the polls,” he wrote.