Charter plebiscite and struggling economy will pose challenges, observers predict
WHILE 2015 was tough and the military-installed government could barely get through it, the new year will not bring the junta much joy either. Not only is the new constitution very likely to arouse a political storm, critics agree economic problems will add to the woes facing the government and the country this year.
“Like threading a needle, economic difficulty cannot be overcome when politics is rocking,” said Nikron Chamnong, a veteran politician who is an adviser to the Chartthai Pattana Party and a member of the National Reform Steering Assembly.
The bread-and-butter issues this year will be integrated with and magnified by political heat, especially over the constitution, he said. When the first and final drafts of the new charter are out, controversy can be anticipated, “and this will make it hard for the government to focus on threading the economic needle”, Nikorn said.
Besides, all the uncertainty about the constitution – whether it will pass a referendum and what is the plan exactly if it fails – also affects the confidence in the government when it is in the middle of reinvigorating the economy, he said. And with all these issues, the political tide will flow very strongly this year, the veteran politician concluded.
Suriyasai Katasila, director of Rangsit University’s Thailand Reform Institute, shared similar thoughts. He said the loss of faith in the government because of its poor economic performance would continue to shake confidence in other aspects. This will make it hard for the government to run the country smoothly, he said.
Similarly, independent scholar Sirote Klampaiboon predicted that economic issues would be a huge deal for the government this year. Public dissatisfaction will become more explicit and people will be more expressive about it as long as the military-installed regime stays in power, he said.
Although the problem may not be the fault of the government, people will still look for someone or something to blame when they feel their bank accounts are running low, he said. Usually, the government is the first target in such circumstances.
He added that these problems were aggravated by the issue of the minimum wage. It has not been adjusted for a couple of years now, which affects at least 13 million people. Thus dissatisfaction will reveal itself this year, one way or another, the scholar said.
And that outlook does not include the issue of agricultural-product prices. There has not been any sign the situation will improve, he said. Ultimately, it will have political repercussions when people start to question whether the drought was natural or resulted from the government neglecting water management, Sirote said.
For the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship chairman Jatuporn Promphan, it has always been clear that all issues of economy, society, and politics are aligned, leaving the country in the muddle. There are no signs of improvement, he said.
“Under the incompetent junta government, even absolute power in its hands does not yield anything … The economy is really bad and the government is hallucinating enough to say that the people’s satisfaction is more than 99 per cent. The circumstance here is that there is no future,” the red-shirt figure said.
While he believes international pressure will affect the country’s economy this year, former prime minister and Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva expressed a different perspective on its impact. He said that under coercion, the government would ease up on freedom of expression in the country. This would make it more difficult and challenging for the government, he said.
On political issues, the critics agreed that the focal point this year would lie in the new constitution being written by Meechai Ruchupan’s Constitution Drafting Committee.
Sirote took the view that regardless of whether the next charter will be Meechai’s draft or that of anyone else picked by the military’s ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), controversy will be stirred up.
For the charter being drafted by the CDC, the dangerous points include an outside or unelected prime minister, and senators who are not directly elected. The scholar believes these issues will accelerate political confrontation.
But if the charter is rejected by a national plebiscite and the junta opts for adopting one of the previous constitutions, the clash could be put aside for a while, he believes.
By “clash” and “confrontation”, he said he did not necessarily suggest it would mean street demonstrations. “All I can say is that discontent would rise up. [If there are] street protests, they will be the result of many factors combining together,” Sirote said.
Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, a senior political scientist who in 2013 joined the People’s Democratic Reform Committee to protest against corruption, agreed that constitutional matters would turn up the political temperature.
He remarked that the junta-imposed 2014 interim constitution stipulated that for the new charter to pass a plebiscite, a majority vote from eligible voters was required. Sombat said this was almost impossible and might cause an issue when the charter entered a referendum this year.
And if the charter does not pass, for whatever reason, more problems would follow, as the government had no clear plan of what it would do.
For the Thailand Reform Institute’s Suriyasai, no matter how the referendum turns out, there will be aftershocks. He said that if the poll failed, it would put pressure on the government. The vote result could prove public discontent towards the junta, he said. In political issues such as the Rajabhakti Park scandal involving the Army, and the case against former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra over the rice-pledging scheme, Suriyasai said there would almost certainly be repercussions.
Abhisit said if no transparency were provided in the Rajabhakti case, the country could be weakened as faith in the government and the NCPO would be lost. So he urged that the military reforms itself to set an example for politicians.
In contrast, Sirote took the view that the two major cases would not have much political impact.
For the rice-pledging scheme, it was just another issue, among many others, that Shinawatra supporters would be upset about. There have been many times that the Shinawatra camp was attacked and discontent was stirred up, but then the powers-that-be were still able to remain in power, he said.
The park scandal, too, would not have an impact as the government had all the media under its control. It would end the same way as the GT200 bomb-detector case where no culprits were found, Sirote said. This was also because no independent agencies stepped in to investigate.
He added that all in all, the junta’s supporters would stick to their ground on the condition that the military-installed regime could block the Shinawatra camp from politics. As long as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha could resist Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, the general’s supporters this year would continue to advocate him – unless an alternative or rising star were found who could do the job, he said.
What’s more worrisome this year are international deals like the double-track railways and other major infrastructure projects, Sirote said. Although they have not gained much public attention up to now, they could be used against the junta any time as the country falls into an inferior position with the unreasonable interest rates extracted by China.
Together with the rising bread-and-butter issues, people could express their disaffection about such deals this year, Sirote said.