Less than one month before Thailand’s highly anticipated August 7 constitutional referendum, a widening clampdown on “vote no” activities has galvanized further dissent and upped the risk of post-poll instability. Hard curbs on free expression, imposed in a draconian Referendum Act that carries potential 10-year prison penalties for misrepresenting the draft constitution, criticizing its content, or disrupting the vote, have simultaneously raised doubts about the credibility and integrity of the military-steered democratic process. If passed, the constitution will bestow the military broad powers over future elected governments, including fast-track means to remove elected politicians deemed as corrupt or wayward. The country’s top two sidelined political parties, the Democrats and Peua Thai, have both condemned provisions in the draft, including articles that would hamstring their ability to implement policies that run counter to coup-installed Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s 20-year economic development plan.
A provision that would allow the military to sustain its outsized political role in a handpicked 250-member Senate, with six seats reserved for armed forces chiefs, has sparked the most criticism. A second referendum question will ask voters to decide if an appointed Senate should in certain scenarios help to select the premier, opening the way for a potential non-elected leader. The provision could open the way for Prayut or Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan to lead a future elected coalition government in the name of national unity.
While the Democrats have publicly carped about the draft, Peua Thai and its affiliated United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), or “Red Shirt,” pressure group have actively campaigned against it, reviving a movement that has been mostly quiescent since the 2014 coup. Peua Thai politicians, including former ministers, challenged the junta’s ban on criticism in mid-June by simultaneously posting why they would vote down the charter on their Facebook pages, with several labeling the draft as “undemocratic” and “unacceptable.”