Hopes that the upcoming referendum offers a return to stability and prosperity for the country are based on an illusion. The fact is, it would be no bed of roses if Thailand got its 20th constitution.
On August 7, voters will make their decisions on two questions. The first is whether you are for or against the charter draft. The second is whether you agree that unelected senators should be empowered to join elected MPs in voting to select the prime minister.
The referendum process seems to have been muddled from the start.
Departing from tradition by incorporating more than one question has brought confusion, which has grown over the process of explaining and helping voters understand the draft’s content.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) assigned the military to help disseminate information on the draft to voters. But the Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) has been tasked with publicising the draft’s details while the National Legislative Assembly has to explain why it wants a joint parliamentary vote for the PM.
However, where the CDC is facing resistance – particularly in strongholds of the anti-coup movement – it has co-opted provincial officials who did not write the draft to help explain its contents. As such, the process of conveying the information is proving difficult.
On top of that, the referendum act that came into effect last month contains tough regulations about voters expressing their opinions. The NCPO is threatening to file lawsuits against those who cause chaos or violence during the referendum campaign, with penalties of up to 10 years in jail for those found guilty.
The harshest regulations and penalties are reserved for people who express opinions on the draft that differ from those of the powers-that-be.
A fair and effective referendum can only occur if voters receive adequate information on both the draft content and the additional question on selecting a PM. Only with that information can they make informed choices in the ballot booths.
Unfortunately, instead of trying to ensure effective dissemination, the NCPO is focused on arresting its opponents.
Meanwhile a shortage of information, strict rules on campaigning and too many barriers in place against public expression threaten to sway voters’ decisions in an unhealthy way.
The lack of information and restrictions on asking questions could lead to misunderstanding and encourage emotional reactions rather than reasoned choices based on the substance of the draft.
Voters can accept that the NCPO wants to maintain peace and order during the campaign, but many will not tolerate tight restriction of public communication that seems to violate basic rights.
Calls for more open debate have spread from the local to the international stage and now threaten to damage Thailand’s reputation.
Of course, the NCPO might be successful in maintaining order with such tough measures, and the draft may pass the referendum. But the legitimacy of the resulting constitution would definitely be questioned.
Legitimacy can only be achieved when different voices are heard.
With three months to go before voters enter booths, the junta has a duty to lift the climate of fear and help create a more inclusive atmosphere.
Assuming, of course, that it wants the draft charter to pass and be accepted as legitimate