On September 6, 2015, a reform council appointed by Thailand’s military-run administration, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), rejected a constitution prepared by a drafting committee it had itself appointed. With the draft scuppered, the military regime extended its tenure by at least seven months, backtracking on the roadmap to “fully-functioning democracy” it announced after the May 2014 coup and delaying a general election until mid-2017.
Passage to a general election, including a new constitution subject to a national referendum, has started over. The process is unfolding against a backdrop of impending royal succession, a faltering economy and continuing political and social polarisation that military rule has failed to ease. The regime’s autocratic bent and evident determination to oversee the succession preclude an inclusive national dialogue on a political order rooted in popular sovereignty that protects the rights of all.
The country is in the grip of a conflict between forces of change and continuity that has political, economic and geographical dimensions. It manifests itself as friction between elected and unelected authority. The traditional establishment – bureaucracy, military, and palace networks – seeks to preserve the status quo in the face of socio-economic change and political claims of provincial voters. Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister from 2001 until a coup in 2006, challenged the old guard with his ambition and electoral prowess. The establishment’s repertoire of bureaucratic oversight, constitutional engineering, judicial intervention, street protests and coups d’état failed to contain Thaksin or suppress the popular political aspirations he harnessed. Thaksin-aligned parties have won every general election since 2001. With the 69-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej drawing to an end and royal succession looming, the establishment required a more assertive effort to control events.
The NCPO seized power in 2014, citing the threat of continued violence after months of protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, elected in July 2011. Many who demanded Yingluck’s ouster saw the coup as a necessary step in eradicating corruption and what they called parliamentary dictatorship. The NCPO proclaimed a three-phase roadmap to democracy: reestablishment of security and reconciliation; an elected government; and an ongoing reform process. However, it has repeatedly postponed the projected date for a general election.
Ratification of a new constitution is a precondition of the roadmap’s second phase. The Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) produced a document that alarmed observers across the political divide. Provisions included a majority-appointed senate, allowance for an unelected prime minister and a “crisis committee” stacked with military officers empowered to override parliament and the executive in the interests of national security. The NCPO appeared to lobby its appointed reform council to reject the draft, thereby not only extending its tenure, but also sparing it the potential embarrassment of rejection by voters in a plebiscite. Few lamented the draft’s demise, but for many, its rejection casts doubt on the military’s commitment to relinquish power to an elected government. Most Thais do not expect the military to step down for several years, until well after a new king is on the throne. Some are concerned that it will use the next constitution to engineer enduring political supremacy.
A new CDC must produce a draft constitution by 1 April 2016 that will be subject to a national referendum. The failure of the 2015 draft suggests that the NCPO may not be able to issue a constitution that both satisfies its concerns about maintaining political control and is acceptable to the public. If the next draft fails, the process will start yet again. If the public approves a draft simply in order to return to elected government, the conflict between elected and unelected authority is likely to re-emerge. The NCPO has spurned the kind of deliberative drafting process that could help confer legitimacy on the next constitution and appears to be playing for time.
A handful of democracy activists have staged sporadic demonstrations, but the regime’s political opponents have mostly opted to bide their time. The NCPO faces no evident challenge to its hold on power. Nevertheless, continued harassment of regime critics betrays its insecurity, which may stem in part from arcane elite factionalism. Meanwhile, allegations of corruption have undermined its assertion of moral guardianship, and a worsening economy fuels growing discontent, which, if not assuaged, could spur more active opposition.
After a decade of turmoil, and with the king’s reign drawing to an end, most Thais appear either receptive or resigned to a period of military rule. Yet, expectation of future turmoil is pervasive. Those convinced that time is on the side of popular sovereignty cite recurring collective demands for greater democracy. But few see the military surrendering its veto over the constitutional order. Nor would a new constitution and a general election by themselves resolve the legitimacy struggle between elected and unelected authority. This requires a new social contract, best achieved through dialogue about Thailand’s political order. Necessary conditions for such a dialogue, including protection of political rights and leadership with a stake in compromise, are absent. For now, anxiety surrounding the end of the current reign and the regime’s repression of dissent rule out such a process.
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