Military set to entrench political influence following constitutional referendum
12/08/2016On 7 August, Thailand voted overwhelmingly to accept a new draft constitution. The referendum, called by the interim military-backed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, not only saw the public endorse the draft constitution, but accept that a junta-appointed Senate would have a role in selecting a new prime minister following a promised general election in 2017. Proponents of the constitution laud the referendum as a major step in securing a “fully-functioning democracy” for Thailand, claiming that it will enhance the ability of successive governments to root out corruption and restore political stability.
The constitution's detractors, namely the Democrat Party and Pheu Thai Party, contend that the result will diminish the role of democracy and affords the NCPO excessive political influence, weakening the parliamentary standing of the new government. While the vote paves the way for a 2017 election, the result will see the NCPO’s influence enduring beyond its tenure. Several constitutional provisions have proved unpopular with opposition and pro-democracy groups. For example, the new constitution stipulates that the NCPO is to unilaterally appoint all 250 seats of the Upper House when the next government assumes office. An Upper House dominated by officials sympathetic with the NCPO, including prominent military officers and other security officials, would further cement its political leverage, giving it the ability to block legislation and increasing the likelihood of the appointment of an unelected, military-backed prime minister in the coming years. Furthermore, the constitution allows for the transition to civilian rule to last as long as five years, fuelling concerns over perennial military dominance in the intervening period.
Since the beginning of its interim tenure following a coup in May 2014, the NCPO has faced criticism over its stifling of political freedoms. As part of a strict censorship programme, numerous liberal media outlets have been banned, political gatherings have been prohibited and members of opposition groups detained arbitrarily. In the run-up to the referendum, the NCPO imposed a blanket ban on town hall meetings, public discussion and independent campaigning regarding the vote. Such tactics have served to foment disquiet among opposition groups, who allege that the suppression of “no” campaigners is tantamount to electoral fraud. Indeed, the result will likely embolden the NCPO to intensify its crackdown on political opponents, under the guise of maintaining stability and ensuring security ahead of the 2017 election.