Thais Split Over Charter Referendum, Polls Show

Nontarat Phaicharoen
160801-TH-banner-620 Residents of Tambon Sawo, a village in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat, take down a banner urging people to vote “no” in an upcoming constitutional referendum, Aug. 1, 2016.

Thailand’s Election Commission (EC) expects a high turnout for Sunday’s constitutional referendum, yet voters appear to be deeply divided over it, fresh polls show.

And although the commission has allowed limited debates on the issue to take place through Wednesday, the military-controlled government banned public discussion or criticism of the draft charter and has arrested or detained scores of activists during weeks leading up to the vote.

According to officials at the EC, as many as 40.4 million voters – or 80 percent of Thailand’s electorate – are expected to vote on the proposed charter, which would usher in general elections for mid-2017, if passed.

Should the referendum succeed it would clear the way for Thailand’s 20th constitution since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The upcoming vote also marks only the second constitutional referendum in those 84 years.

The turnout for the last referendum, which took place in 2007 – a year after a military coup had toppled another civilian-led government – was only 57 percent, according to reports.

When Thais step into the voting booth on Sunday, the ballot in front of them will ask them two questions: to vote “yes” or “no” on the draft charter as well a clause in it that would allow 250 appointed senators to join 500 elected MPs in picking a new prime minister during a five-year period after the formation of a new parliament.

The 279-section draft charter is particularly controversial because it leaves open the possibility of a non-elected person becoming prime minister, its critics say.

They also argue that the charter would entrench the military’s power by allowing the junta to hand-pick all 250 senators and guaranteeing that six of those seats are held by the chiefs of the armed forces and police.

According to retired Lt. Gen.Nathadej Meksawat, an observer of Thai politics, the clause is making elected officials and other politicians nervous.

“What is getting in the way of politicians are NCPO-appointed senators who will counter-balance an elected government,” Nathadej told BenarNews, referring to the junta by its formal name – the National Council for Peace and Order. The junta overthrew the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup two years ago.

However, the Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC), whose members were appointed by the junta and which unveiled the draft charter four months ago, has argued that it would help restore stability in politically fraught Thailand by preventing corruption and other abuses of power by politicians.

“Asked why we, the drafting commission, had a provisional clause to allow appointed senators, the answers are the NCPO feels [that] its past efforts to bring back peace are not quite done yet. A pledge to reform politics was not fulfilled yet,” CDC Chairman Meechai Richupan told reporters when the commission released the draft charter in late March.

‘The politicians don’t like it’

Somchai San-in, a Bangkok-based businessman, said he planned to vote in favor of the charter because, as he put it, politicians have ruined the country through self-interest and the articles of the new constitution would act as a check-and-balance against corrupt leaders.

“I support the charter because the politicians don’t like it. That is because they cannot be corrupt and use that corrupt money to play money politics,” Somchai told BenarNews.

With less than six days till Thais go to the polls, voters seem to be split over how to vote.

According to a poll published by Bangkok University over the weekend, 48.4 percent of 2,810 respondents said they would vote for the charter, while 35.4 percent were undecided, and the rest said they would abstain or vote against it.

The Prachamati poll, a separate survey that came out Saturday, showed that 85 percent of 1,813 respondents said they would reject the charter, while six percent responded that they were undecided and the remainder said they would vote for it.

Free debate?

Fears and tensions around the issue have also grown as the junta has clamped down on dissent over the referendum by banning public criticism of it and arresting at least 122 dissidents on charges of sedition or violating a new referendum law.

Thai officials have sent out conflicting signals about allowing limited debates over the issue this week.

After the EC announced last week that it would allocate funds for debates of no more than three hours in each of Thailand’s 77 provinces, a forum to discuss the draft constitution was thwarted in the northeastern province of Khon Khaen province on Saturday, according to local reports.

Two pro-democracy groups, New Citizens and New Democracy-Isaan, had sought permission to hold a debate on the proposed constitution at Khon Khaen University but a campus official ordered them to cancel the event, citing advice from police, reports said.

Don Pathan in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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