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Thailand’s referendum: Junta and government eat humble pie

Updated On: Aug 21, 2007

Despite the Thai government’s best efforts to encourage the people to come out to vote in support of the draft charter, the citizens’ response has been lukewarm at most.

The Election Commission (EC) announced the official figures of the poll on Monday (20 August).

The EC declared that about 26 million voters (57.61% out of the approximately 45 million eligible to vote) exercised their right. The draft constitution “was approved by 14.727 million voters” (about 57.81% of those who participated in the polls) while 10.747 million (42.19%) voters rejected the draft. Most notably, the Thai Rak Thai party’s stronghold in the Northeast rejected the draft charter “with ‘no’ votes of 63% and ‘yes’ votes of only 36%”.

This ambivalent tally has enabled the pro- and anti-charter to interpret the results in their favour.

For instance, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has called on political rivals to accept the referendum, saying “the majority had spoken –although minority voices would be respected too”. He also announced, “A definite election date will be announced after a royal command for the promulgation of the new constitution and the completion of the legislative process for organic laws relating to elections.” Surayud again stressed that Thailand’s political future lay with elections and not the military, saying, “I believe the people cast referendum votes because they want to overcome the political crisis. I don't think anyone can execute a plan for power succession because the people won't allow it.”

These are sharp words for the junta, especially Council for National Security chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who is widely expected to participate in Thai politics after he finishes his term in the army. Sonthi has come out to indirectly fault the government’s ineffective publicity campaign for the poor referendum results. Sonthi added that the Northeast referendum results were telling of the uphill task of political parties for that region in the upcoming elections.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva (who has his eyes on being the next premier) has now assumed a mediatory role, rallying the people “for a fresh start in Thai politics, [and asking] all groups in the ongoing political conflict to bury their past and start anew”.

Surprisingly, the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) group’s leading member, Chaturon Chaisang, has humbly announced that TRT “would accept the results of the referendum, although they saw that it was not organised in line with democratic principles”. Chaturon further assured, “We will try to help maintain reconciliation in society and will not push for a new referendum… in future we will propose amendments to make the charter more democratic.” The TRT’s response is much more muted than other anti-charter groups.

Conversely, “Vote No” campaigners like Somchai Preechasilpakul, dean of Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Law rejoiced, “It's a wonderful surprise that the 'no' vote count is as high as 40%”. “Such a close margin between the 'yes' and 'no' votes makes us wonder what the result would be if the plebiscite were held under a democratic atmosphere and a more trustworthy Election Commission,” he added.

Moreover, Uchane Cheangsan of the September 19 Network against the Coup declared the ultimate losers to be the junta and incumbent government –that despite strict public control and “one-sided public information, the junta could not achieve a clear victory”. Uchane was quick to clarify that those who voted against the draft charter are not to be simplistically labeled as “pro-Thaksin” but as opponents of the coup and military rule. Naruemon Thabchumpon of Chulalongkorn University added that those who voted ‘yes’ should also not be viewed as supporters of the draft charter because they “might simply have wanted to see the political process move on by having an election”. The anti-charter campaigners are adamant about calling for accountability from the politicians “to amend the constitution towards a political reform that reduces the power of bureaucracy and increases the power of the people”.

Given the myriad of sentiments Thai society has toward the results of the referendum, the upcoming elections (speculated to be held either December 16 or December 23) will surely be fraught with tensions.

Whatever it is, there is short term rejoicing for the Thai economy at least, after the referendum. Maris Tarab, chairman of the Association of Investment Management Companies, predicted that the Stock Exchange of Thailand's index will soar as investors’ optimism rise over Thailand’s potential return to democracy and because of the rise in the US markets last Friday.

Thaksin is strangely quiet about the referendum results. Perhaps he is rejoicing over the win that his football team, Manchester City, has just had over Manchester United. Thaksin’s multi-million dollar buy is now at the English Premier League table –exactly in line with his visions of leaving politics and transforming the club into a champion team. (20 August 2007)

Sources:

Charter approved with 57.81 per cent of votes: official results (Nation, 20 August 2007)

'Yes' vote paves way for poll (Nation, 20 August 2007)

98 per cent votes counted and voter turnout is 56.5 per cent – Sodsri (Nation, 20 August 2007)

Thai Rak Thai accepts defeat (Nation, 20 August 2007)

Charter foes see victory in defeat (Nation, 20 August 2007)

Three deep south provinces have highest number of void ballots (Nation, 20 August 2007)

Sonthi says defeat in Northeast serves lesson (Nation, 20 August 2007)

Hefty Thai "No" vote points to messy December election (Reuters, 20 August 2007)

Thaksin's Man City beats ManU (Deutsche Press Agency, 20 August 2007)