Thailand’s military junta will hold a national referendum Sunday on a new constitution that it casts as an essential step toward restoring democracy. But the junta has blocked opponents from campaigning against the measure, banned election monitors and restricted news coverage of the referendum. And the proposed constitution, critics say, would weaken the role of elected officials and extend the military’s influence for years to come. The vote will be the first major test of the military’s standing with the public, as much a referendum on the legitimacy of military rule as on the draft constitution. But no matter the outcome, the junta will remain in control until it decides to hand power back to an elected government. For Thailand, which changes constitutions more often than the United States changes presidents, the proposed charter is not necessarily expected to endure. But it seeks to reduce the influence of any one politician or party, a measure that seems particularly directed at populist leaders who appeal to the poorer rural population of northern Thailand.
“The idea is to craft the rules and the institutions to rebalance power and authority from the previous decade,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political-science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “The goal is to keep the political party system fragmented to bring about a fragile coalition government that will not be dominated by a single party.”
The junta, which has portrayed itself as the only institution capable of maintaining stability in the bitterly divided country, says that by minimizing the influence of any party, the new political structure would help prevent corruption and bring fairness to government.