It’s not being painted that way in the media – and certainly not in the Thai media, under the watchful eye of military censorship – but Sunday’s constitutional referendum in Thailand was rather a slap in the face for the military government, in power since a coup in May 2014.
The headline result is that the new constitution, which will allow a heavy military influence over the transition to civilian government, was approved with a “yes” vote of 61.4%. In normal circumstances, that would be a resounding victory. But considering that campaigning for a “no” vote was effectively illegal, the fact that almost 40% voted against the constitution anyway is quite remarkable.
Other coup leaders have done a much more thorough job of pushing through their preferred constitutional arrangements. After the military seized power in Egypt, for example, they had a new constitution approved with a striking 98.1% of the vote.
When only one side is allowed to be heard, its opponents often express their dissent by boycotting the vote. Turnout in the Egyptian referendum was only 38.6%. But it was nothing stunning in Thailand either, with 58% going to the polls (in the last contested election, in 2011, it was 75%). The “yes” vote therefore represents only about 35% of the voting-age population.
So as mandates go, the generals have a pretty thin one.
That’s all the more striking in view of the fact that there was no way of telling what the consequences a “no” vote would have been. Compare the 1988 referendum in Chile that ended General Pinochet’s rule: although there was no certainty he would abide by the result (to his credit, he did), at least it was clear that a “no” was supposed to lead to the restoration of democracy.
There was no such confidence in Thailand, where rejection of the constitution would have just sent the generals back the drawing board to come up with a new plan to perpetuate their rule. Many opponents of the military must have felt that at least a flawed transition to democracy was better than none at all.
The pattern of the result would be no surprise to anyone who has followed Thai politics in recent years. The “no” vote was strong in the north of the country, the heartland of the deposed Pheu Thai party and its exiled leader, Thaksin Shinawatra. In the north-east “no” actually had a majority, with 51.4%. In the centre and in Bangkok, around 30% voted “no”; only in the affluent south, where support for Thaksin is always weak, did the “yes” vote reach 75%.
But the referendum campaign, such as it was, has at least shown some common ground among the civilian politicians. Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose somewhat mis-named Democrat Party supported the 2014 coup, argued for a “no” vote, putting him for once alongside the woman who defeated him in 2011, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
With elections promised for next year, what Thailand really needs is for that momentary agreement to be transformed into more lasting co-operation in the interests of democracy. If the civilians instead go back to fighting one another, the Thai military will be the only winner.