By WIRAJ SRIPONG
THE National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)'s announcement No 7/2557, prohibiting public gatherings of more than five people, has become a challenge for the Election Commission as it has to organise a referendum on the new constitution.
“We will have to wait for the NCPO’s decision as the announcement likely obstructs the organisation from running a campaign for or [to] hold the referendum,” Election Commission (EC) chairman Suphachai Somcharoen said. “If the referendum on the draft charter cannot be undertaken, we will have to find an alternative way to make it happen.”
But he added: “There should be no problem.”
The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) agreed on June 18 that the interim charter should be amended to allow a referendum on the new charter, and the EC is tasked with organising this nationwide vote.
Suphachai said the EC was preparing for different eventualities in organising the referendum, but would wait until the National Reform Council (NRC) votes on the draft charter before taking further action.
According to the amended Section 37 of the interim charter, once the NRC votes to accept the draft charter, the NRC or the NLA can then propose one question each in addition to the question asking whether people accept or reject the new charter. This must get Cabinet approval first.
The EC will then be given 45 days to distribute copies of the draft charter to the 47 million eligible voters to study and make a decision. The NRC looks set to vote on the draft charter in early September. However, adding more questions to the same referendum offers another challenge to the EC.
The EC chairman said every step would be taken to ensure voters have a clear understanding of the entire process.
Prof Attasit Pankaew, a political scientist at Thammasat University, said it was necessary to inform the public about what is going to happen before and after the referendum is held.
“The information should be clear at every step of the referendum process,” he said, adding that it was crucial for a campaign to be launched to educate voters about the pros and cons of the new constitution, so they can make an informed decision.
“The campaign should provide the public with essential elements by highlighting issues of political importance and public interest. This may include such issues as development of a political structure that would enable a multi-party system, a principal party domination system, citizens’ rights, and how politicians come to power, among others,” he said.
He added that the questionnaire used for the referendum should be clear and easy to understand.
“The clarity of the questions will have a significant impact on voters’ decisions,” the political scientist pointed out, adding that clear and simple questions are vital to ensure a good turnout.
On a positive note, having more than one question on the ballot might also encourage more voters to participate, he said, adding that people are more eager to take part if they stand to gain more benefits.
Earlier, the EC had disclosed that the referendum would be held on January 10.
Suphachai said preparations were already underway and that the ballot would only be held for one day and Thai citizens living overseas would not be covered.
The number of questions to be included depends on the Cabinet, which will submit the draft charter to the EC once the NRC has endorsed it on September 4.
If the referendum is held on January 10, then the EC would be required to publish the draft charter in October and complete the delivery of copies to homes around the country before December.
Meanwhile, EC secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong said that the poll agency had discussed drafting legislation on conducting a referendum. This would empower the EC to order other state agencies to provide support for holding a public referendum. Also, he said, the draft regulations would be rechecked after some EC members voiced concern over possible chaos – like what occurred during the February 2, 2014 election.
The draft regulation stipulates that the EC has the power to postpone the date of the referendum.