While it is always topsy-turvy and unwieldy, Thailand’s political environment has rarely been as tumultuous as in the past decade, characterised by recurrent street protests along pro- and anti-establishment lines.
At issue has been a fragile and contested democracy whereby election winners were inevitably ousted by the powers-that-be who eventually proved unable to win a poll. But Thailand has now reached a new political plateau in the wake of the military government’s successful constitutional referendum that sets the political direction for the foreseeable future in view of the ageing king’s ailing health and its attendant royal transition.
Clearly, the military is now poised to supervise Thai politics during the royal twilight and thereafter. Whether this bodes good or ill for Thai democracy will depend on the ruling generals under the National Council for Peace and Order. If the junta opts for a civil-military compromise and mutual accommodation, it could later lead to a gradual military withdrawal and the return of a cleaner and more workable democratic system. But if the generals stay for the long haul with rising abuses of power, Thailand may end up with more confrontation and mayhem than in the recent past as popular sentiments would turn against the military.
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Until the referendum on August 7, the forces controlled by and aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra invariably triumphed at the polling booth. Elections in 2001, 2005, 2007, and 2011 all produced convincing victories for the Thaksin clan, even while his parties were dissolved by the judiciary twice – in 2007 and 2008 – and his associated governments overthrown by the military in 2006 and 2014, the latter spearheaded by his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra. Thaksin’s political juggernaut would also have won elections in 2006 and 2014 had they not been nullified by the courts. When Thailand had its first-ever constitutional plebiscite in August 2007, Thaksin told his supporters to let it past to speed up the subsequent elections. The result was a 57 per cent voter turnout and as great a percentage voting in favour.
Thailand’s second-ever referendum last month, however, was the first time this century that Thaksin and his party machine lost the vote. From exile, he had staked a position against the military-inspired charter that would set up an appointed senate under junta tutelage. At home, the leaders of the “red shirts” who had voted for Thaksin’s parties mobilised against the military’s conservative law of the land. Even the opposing Democrat Party, which had helped bring down Thaksin’s previous governments, stood against the draft constitution.
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Yet it passed. Although the campaign that led to it was not free and fair, with anti-charter protests quashed and critics silenced or arrested, the vote was clean and its results were clear enough. On a 59 per cent turnout from roughly 50 million eligible voters, popular support for the military’s constitution stood at 61 per cent. Thai voters knew well enough what they had gotten themselves into. It was not a vote about constitutional jargon and legal details but a referendum on Thailand’s latest coup and the junta’s performance in view of prevailing circumstances.
The constitutional verdict suggests the Thai people are fed up with endless street protests and want some order and stability even at the expense of putting up with indefinite military influence over Thai politics. They are tired of the corruption and graft of elected representatives over the years. Many Thaksin supporters in the countryside also have been softened by the military government’s own brand of populism, such as rural subsidies, cheap agricultural loans, and a rudimentary old-age pension system.
Voting for the charter means there will be a general election late next year or early 2018 when the Thai people can reassess and have a broader say. Above all, most Thais know that the ongoing royal transition is sensitive and delicate and requires the military’s handling. Politicians and political groups have despised the military and opposed its constitution but none of them wants to be in power at this time.
Military rule in the long term bodes ill for Thailand’s future but there is no alternative for the time being. The trick for Thailand is to end up with a military that does some cleaning up of corruption in the indefinite interim while ushering in a peaceful royal transition and a recalibrated democratic rule thereafter.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Political Economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok