The constitution’s passage is a victory for the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) which has ruled Thailand since the May 2014 military coup. The 61% ‘yes’ vote exceeded the 57% approval of the previous constitution in 2007, and came despite the major opposition party, Pheu Thai, and the leader of the major establishment Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva, opposing the draft.
In the short term this outcome reduces uncertainty, as defeat would likely have led to imposition of a constitution with no claim to legitimacy. Opposition forces have accepted the referendum result while criticising the repressive conditions in which it was held.
The NCPO’s road map remains on track, with a fresh election (the first fully-contested one since 2011) due before the end of 2017. Previous timelines have slipped, though, and it would be no surprise if this too were delayed
Approval does not mean endorsement
However, the vote does not mean endorsement of the NCPO. Most voters showed little awareness of the draft’s provisions, while public debate was severely constrained by official pressure, including a vigorously-enforced ban on campaigning which saw around a hundred activists arrested in the weeks leading up to the vote.
And as in previous elections, regional support varied considerably, with 23 out of 77 provinces in the north, north-east and deep south rejecting the draft.
The new constitution aims to square a circle: to restore elected government while tightly constraining its freedom of action. The new electoral system disfavours large parties and benefits smaller ones; a wholly appointed Senate will help choose the Prime Minister; and other unelected institutions will have expanded powers to intervene against government decisions.
In short, the constitution appears intended to create a system of weak multi-party governments, constrained by unelected institutions, in order to protect elite interests.
But Thailand’s longer-term political future remains very uncertain. First, the constitution mandates 10 ‘organic laws’ to be drafted and approved. These will provide further important details (for example, of the electoral system) of how the new arrangements will work.
Second, the new constitution will take some time to bed down in practice, as parties learn to adapt and precedents are established. The party system itself may undergo realignment: the Democrat party, split on the referendum and long unable to win elections, may reform or split amid speculation that a new pro-military party may be formed.
Third, it is unclear how public opinion will react if the new constitution works as intended and hems in an elected government’s freedom of manoeuvre. Modernisation is transforming Thai society, making it more prosperous, highly connected and less deferential. The elite response to new forces and demands has been to contain and constrain more than adapt and accommodate. This helps explain why Thailand has had, on average, one constitution every 4.2 years. The latest constitution on its own seems unlikely to resolve the polarization that underlies Thailand’s chronic instability.
Indeed, concerns about stability are heightened by rejection of the referendum in the deep southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, where a long-running Malay-Muslim insurgency festers. These provinces, which had supported the 2007 constitution, recorded some of the biggest ‘no’ votes last week. This declining confidence in the authorities bodes ill for a political resolution to the conflict.
Trying to ‘reset’ Thai politics
It remains unclear how the NCPO will use its remaining 16 months in power. Thailand’s bureaucratic-military elite has learned the lessons of the 2006 coup, when a new constitution and early return to elections failed to halt the success of the rural populist majority, loyal to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose parties have won every contest since 2001.
The 2014 coup leaders are determined to carry out a more fundamental ‘reset’ of the Thai political order –which means, above all, to extirpate the influence of Thaksin and his Redshirt supporters. The authorities may now try to push through ‘reforms’ intended to achieve this.
They will aim, too, to reset Thailand’s relations with the United States and European Union which were downgraded after the 2014 coup. In particular, the EU may move to resume negotiations on a new Free Trade Agreement that it suspended following the coup.
While Western countries criticised the referendum campaign, a return to civilian rule, even a constrained one, will prompt a review of their positions. But how stable and effective this rule will be remains to be seen.
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