Thailand’s military government has said it will hold a referendum on its draft constitution. However, it’s not without a catch - or several for that matter.
The issue of whether or not letting the Thai people decide on the draft for the country’s 20th constitution has resulted in some clearly drawn battles lines among Thailand's governing bodies.
On one hand, members of the civic society, the sidelined political parties (likely afraid for their own professional future), the military junta’s National Reform Council (NRC) and even the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) have all been vocally in favor of a referendum.
On the other hand, the military government itself has been hesitant about the idea and even scolded the pro-referendum groups. It also insisted that the power to call for a referendum ultimately lies with the junta and the cabinet - both of which happened to be headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
(READ previous coverage: Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Will the people have a say?)
This back-and-forth came to an end on Tuesday:
Thailand's military junta has decided to hold a referendum on the draft of its new post-coup charter, although details of the ballot's options remain unclear.
The decision was reached in the joint meeting between the junta and the Cabinet at the Government House today.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who chairs both the junta and the Cabinet, said his government will ask the interim parliament he appointed to amend the current constitution to allow for a referendum, which is not mentioned in the charter's present form.
"Once the constitutional amendment is done, we will immediately proceed with the referendum," Gen. Prayuth told reporters today. "Our duty is to make the law that allows for the procedure. As for the procedures themselves, they will be left to relevant agencies. The referendum will be the duty of the Election Commission."
”Junta Approves Charter Referendum, Leaving Details for Later”, Khaosod English, May 19, 2015
So, it sounds pretty straight-forward so far: Section 46 of the current interim constitution needs to be amended to mention the possibility for a referendum on the next constitution and has to be approved by the junta’s ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA).
The decision whether or not to hold a referendum has to be made before the draft constitution is approved in August by the National Reform Council (NRC) - however, if the NRC rejects it, the whole process would start anew again and the issue becomes irrelevant until a new draft has been drawn up (as illustrated here).
However, there’s this potential catch though:
"The NLA all agrees that a referendum should be held," deputy president Peerasak Porchit said yesterday. "A public referendum should not be focused on whether to adopt or reject the whole constitution, as it may prevent good elements [from being implemented].
"However, voting on articles that are crucial would not be too difficult for the general public to understand," he said.
”Referendum should 'focus on key charter points’”, The Nation, May 5, 2015
It is not known at this point if people can vote on the whole constitution draft or just on certain sections, which we don’t know at this point either.
There’s another catch:
"The referendum will take three months to put together. It will likely delay the roadmap," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told journalists. The junta, which came to power in a coup last May, was initially due to approve the new constitution and organize elections in early 2016.
The Deputy Prime Minister, Wissanu Krea-ngam explained that a referendum in January would need another several months "to amend various laws," promising that elections would be held "not more than 90 days after."
"At the earliest it will take place around August or in September," he added.
”Thailand constitutional referendum to delay polls until August 2016”, Deutsche Welle, May 19, 2015
That’s another delay of elections after the military junta initially aimed for late 2015, before the time window was moved to sometime ”early 2016” - which shouldn’t have surprised anybody back then and shouldn’t surprise anybody now.
And then there’s - you guessed it - yet another catch:
General Prayut Chan-o-cha said Tuesday he would stay in power to oversee a new drafting process if the draft constitution was rejected by the public.
He said a new process would automatically begin if the current draft was rejected, either through a referendum or by other means, including by the international community.
”Prayut vows to stay if draft charter rejected”, The Nation, May 12, 2015
A cynic might say that the military junta is holding the next elections to ransom in exchange for a 'yes' vote in the constitutional referendum - and they wouldn’t be wrong to think that. It is evident again that the military government has a tight grip on the whole political discourse and can move the goal posts (in this case until the next elections) as much as it wants to.