By Nirmal Ghosh
Indochina Bureau Chief
Aug 8, 2016
Sunday's referendum in Thailand which passed a new constitution by roughly 15.5 million Yes votes to 9.7 million No votes, ensures that for the foreseeable future electoral politics starting with a general election in 2017, will be played out only between very explicit red lines drawn by the conservative establishment.
The country's deep and dangerous political divide still persists; much of the north east and part of the north voted to reject the constitution.
Whether this divide can be addressed under what academic Thitinan Pongsudhirak has called "military-conceived" custodial "democracy" is not very likely. The current military-appointed government has made noises about addressing inequality in Thai society - but merely addressing economic inequality, even if that succeeds (and it will take time), is not enough; it is aspirational rights that need to be addressed.
The new constitution, billed as an anti-corruption charter, constrains the role of elected politicians even further than the constitution produced by the military in 2007 and similarly put through a referendum - which it also narrowly passed even as the north east and north, strongholds of former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, rejected it.
That constitution was evidently seen as not strong enough; in 2014 then-premier Yingluck Shinawatra lost her job, yet the rest of her Cabinet and government managed to cling on, and it took a coup d'etat to remove them. Under the new constitution, if a party that comes to power has its own ideas that do not quite hew to the line of the military-bureaucratic establishment, it will be easy to pull the rug from under both the prime minister and the Cabinet
Parliament will comprise 750 people - 250 Senators in the upper house which will be essentially appointed; and 500 elected MPs in the lower house. Of the 250 Senate seats, six are reserved for top commanders of the armed forces and the permanent secretary of the ministry of defence.
Electing a prime minister would need a majority of 376 votes out of 750. That means if the Senate votes in a bloc - which is a reasonable assumption - a person can become prime minister with 250 Senate votes and just 126 out of 500 elected MPs.
Unless a party or coalition of parties can form an unassailable majority, it may not even be able to elect a prime minister of its choice. Any prime minister will only function at the pleasure of the military-bureaucratic elites. And the Constitutional Court in particular can intervene in vaguely defined "crisis" situations to decide political directions.
The run up to the referendum was characterised by nothing like the information and robust debate of a referendum or election. Any whiff of criticism of the draft constitution elicited a swift crackdown by the army, and charges under the military's draconian referendum law.
Most political insiders on the eve of the election, believed the draft constitution would be narrowly rejected; that it was not has been explained as a desire by Thais for forward movement of any kind towards an election, a lack of information about the implications of the constitution, or simply apathy; some 45 per cent of registered voters did not vote.
That there is also underlying anxiety over the royal transition - King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 88, hospitalised and increasingly frail - would undoubtedly have been a factor as well.
Many Thais, privately at least given the constraints on any discussion about the monarchy, fear potential chaos at the passing of a King who for over six decades has been seen as the ultimate moral authority and last resort in a still hierarchical, even feudal society.
That the military is concerned is no secret; regime leaders and spokesmen have continually emphasised that Thailand is going through a sensitive transition which foreigners - a term usually used for western countries and commentators - may not fully grasp.
From the army's point of view the monarchy in Thailand is intrinsic to national security.
Henning Glaser, Director of the German-Southeast Asian Centre of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG) at Thammasat University, at a panel discussion days before the referendum, made the point that "Thai constitutions are essentially conservative, they try to preserve heritage."
Writing in The Straits Times in May, Dr Thitinan, Director of Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) said the constitution was "part of a 20-year junta- sponsored reform drive to reset Thailand's political development."
Promulgating this constitution, he wrote, would invest the upper house with "unprecedented authority to supervise and scrutinise the post-election government.''
"It is like the military's own political party ensconced in the legislature without having to contest for people's support.''
The Thailand based German academic Michael Nelson, who is also from CPG at Thammasat University, on his Facebook page on Monday argued that "The conclusion from this referendum is that, among the Thai population, there currently is no majority for a democratic form of government. What we have witnessed instead is authoritarian consolidation."
The signs are that the business community, with an interest in stability and policy continuity, is not too fazed by the result of the referendum. Thailand's political conflict is likely to remain muted for the foreseeable future.
Speaking to The Straits Times on the eve of the referendum, a senior political figure who asked not to be named, said "If the constitution passes we will be back to where we were almost 40 years ago. And we will stay in the same place for another 20 years.''
"There will be no turmoil anytime soon'' he predicted. But he warned that "once people realise that they can't really choose the prime minister, they will recognise that the constitution is the problem."
Why Thailand just voted on another constitution — and why this matters to democracies elsewhere
A Thai taxi motorbike rider holds a flag calling on Thais to vote during a campaign to promote the referendum on a new constitution in Bangkok. (Rungroj Yongrit/European Pressphoto Agency)
By Nigel Gould-Davies
A man walks into a bookstore and asks for a copy of the constitution. “We don’t sell periodical literature,” replies the manager. This joke dates to 1958, when France passed the Fifth Republic constitution.
So spare a thought for Thai voters, who on Aug. 7 approved the country’s 20th constitution since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. In fact, Thailand has changed constitutions on average every 4.2 years, about as frequently as other countries change governments.
If citizens don’t agree with the constitution, government has a problem
But while Thailand’s experience may be exceptional, there’s a huge global principle here, one that affects established and emerging democracies alike: How much power should elected authorities wield?
A constitution sets the rules that govern how the game of politics is played. Above all, it defines how countries choose political leaders, how these leaders govern, and the scope of their authority. A stable democracy combines civic consensus over these rules with political competition within them.
The legitimacy of a constitution ensures that, win or lose, everyone accepts the outcome of an election and the decisions of a new government. If a significant group ceases to accept the rules, civil conflict and breakdown of authority are likely to follow.
But Thailand, more than any other country, has persistently failed to secure a consensus on its rules of the game. Since the 1970s rapid modernization has exacerbated this failure by throwing up new social forces to challenge the established order. A rising urban middle class — and more recently an increasingly assertive rural majority — has demanded participation in politics and access to resources. These groups have met with resistance from entrenched interests and institutions.
Thailand continues to fine-tune its rules of democracy
Since 2001 this color-coded confrontation of “yellow shirts” (royalist establishment) and “red shirts” (the populist opposition) has deepened. The rural majority mobilized by Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister from 2001-2006, has repeatedly returned governments only to be removed by coups or other devices (including disqualification for hosting a cooking show). Thailand has become caught in a “Groundhog Day” of election-coup-constitution-election.
The military government in power since the May 2014 coup drafted this latest constitution, which tries to restore democratic elections while constraining future democratic governments. It does so by hemming in elected authority with unelected institutions and other devices. For example, the constitution adds an appointed upper chamber and the possibility of an unelected prime minister. A range of bodies, filled with “good people,” as they are known in Thailand, is also empowered to step in and override government decisions.
The deep polarization of Thai politics means the new constitution is unlikely to enjoy the consensus it requires in order to last. The country does not seem likely to escape its version of “Groundhog Day.”
What are the options for fine-tuning the practice of democracy?
Thailand’s experience offers clues to the prospects for democracy elsewhere in East Asia, where elites face growing popular demands for participation. As the risks and costs of resisting change rise, governments have three options:
1) A phased-in democracy — The approach used in 19th century Western democracies was to expand participation gradually through controlled widening of the franchise. But this option is not available in the 21st. With a handful of exceptions, mostly in the Middle East, the franchise is now all-or-nothing: voting rights can no longer be granted selectively. Most non-democracies already grant nominal universal suffrage in any case, though the elections themselves may be meaningless.
2) Free elections, with falsified results — A more recent elite strategy is electoral autocracy: the appearance, but not reality, of democratic elections. This is achieved through the systematic use of “administrative resources” to skew and, if necessary, falsify, the election outcome. These methods work best where states are strong and civil society under-resourced, as in much of the former Soviet Union.
But this approach has risks, especially when digitally empowered and connected citizens can detect and publicize fraud more effectively than ever. In recent years, mass protests against manipulated elections have led to government overthrow in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia and elsewhere.
3) Free elections, but reel in government authority — A third strategy is to allow largely free and fair elections but constrain the scope of democratic authority. Elites thereby hope to satisfy mass demands for electoral participation while protecting their own interests. This is what Thailand will look like under the new 2016 constitution.
And this was the approach taken in neighboring Myanmar where, following last year’s historic election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy now governs within a framework designed by the previous regime to entrench military influence. This could also prove a model for elite responses to growing pressures elsewhere, including Vietnam, Laos and perhaps one day even China.
Democracy is challenged in established democracies as well
The scope of democratic governance has become a live issue in stable Western democracies, too. Here, this scope has been narrowing for decades as governments have ceded power to the institutions and practices of globalization.
These constraints on democratic decision-making come not from “good people” representing elites, but from “experts” — technocrats, unelected institutions and markets — that purport to know better than citizens do how to achieve their interests. A reappraisal from below is now underway. The theme of “taking back control,” which framed the Brexit campaign, resonates across the European Union — and in the United States.
A common question underlies all these concerns about democracy in East and West alike. Where should the boundary between democratic and non-democratic authority be drawn? In non-democracies, this will be negotiated between self-protecting elites and populations demanding greater inclusion. In democracies, it will be negotiated between elite beneficiaries of globalization and populations that value national autonomy more highly.
Posed in different ways in different countries, this issue of the proper scope of elected authority is now the most important question facing democracy around the world.
Nigel Gould-Davies teaches at Mahidol University International College in Thailand, and is an associate fellow of Chatham House.