THE OUTLOOK is not bright for Thailand after today’s referendum, with political conflict and social division still lingering, analysts say.
Commentators said international pressure would largely depend on the government’s steps ahead to the next general election, while the economic outlook would hinge on whether there is peace or conflict.
The big day has arrived and some 50 million eligible voters are set to vote in the referendum. Voters will be asked whether they approve of the constitution draft and whether they want selected senators to join elected MPs in choosing the next prime minister.
This is likely to be a judgement day in more ways than one. Not only will the fate of the new charter be determined, but the outcome could also be significant for political players such as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and politicians from different parties.
What does the future hold for them and ultimately for the people? Experts see some stability but also conflict.
“After the vote, we could see better stability. However, at the end of the day everything will depend largely on how the NCPO acts,” Thammasat University political scientist Virot Ali said.
“The condition is that if the charter draft is approved, then the NCPO sure could gain some legitimacy. But to make it even better, it must open some space for the political sector to move and prepare for the next election,” the analyst said.
However, he explained, if voters reject the constitution, the regime would still have to carry on and ensure stability. He said the next charter would not have to pass a national referendum, which meant the process would be less inclusive. So, it was important to see how the NCPO goes about this process.
If the charter fails the vote, conditions could favour the junta’s enemies to mobilise against the regime, he said. So, unless the government is clear about the steps it takes ahead of the planned election and eases restrictions on freedom of expression, it will face painful questions and strong pressure, he forecast.
As an international affairs expert, Virot noted that the international community expected more clarity after the referendum.
“The NCPO should reveal when exactly in 2017 the election will take place and make sure all of the process is transparent and inclusive. Otherwise, pressure from outside will not go away,” he said.
The key figures behind the 2006 coup were not met with the intense pressure from the international community that the NCPO experienced because they made it clear what they were doing and when power would be returned to the people, he said.
Chalidaporn Songsamphan, another political scientist at Thammasat, said the NCPO’s legitimacy should be boosted if the draft is voted in. But she warned that the vote could be very confusing and each ballot could contain different meanings.
“So, no matter what the referendum result is, I believe difficulties will follow. There are a few different ways of how we can interpret the vote. While the regime will want to take credit when the draft passes the plebiscite, many voters could vote to support the draft simply because they want an election,” the lecturer said.
She said that if the referendum were a popularity test on the junta and had very little to do with the draft constitution, votes of approval could falsely inflate the regime’s confidence and it could become even less inclusive and more repressive.
“But people could vote ‘yes’ because they want this [military government] to end quickly and open the way for a general election. So, what the NCPO should really do is be open and listen to the voices that they may not want to listen to,” Chalidaporn said.
The political scientist said a majority “No” vote would hopefully be a wake-up call to the NCPO, telling it to review itself and improve. “[But] I’m not very sure the NCPO would do that,” she added.
“So, conflicts are very likely to persist. That’s one thing I see for sure,” Chalidaporn said.
Thailand had yet to step out of the cycle of conflict, she said, and regardless of the referendum result, the NCPO’s primary task was meant to be making sure that reconciliation is achieved.
“Bread and butter” administrative issues are also matters of concern. Hit by the global slowdown, the two years under the NCPO have been a minor nightmare for many consumers and businesspeople. And some fear the referendum could hurt the economy even more badly.
Rangsit University economist Anusorn Tamajai said if both referendum questions win a majority “Yes” vote, conflicts could be anticipated, mainly due to a constitutional clause that allows a non-MP to become prime minister. That would affect the country’s economy and investment next year, he predicted.
If a new charter and a national strategy have to be written, the economist suggested that the government allow more inclusive participation in order to bring about a better constitution. This way, it would have a positive impact on the economy and investment, he said.
Anusorn also believed the margin of the referendum result is significant. “The wider gap [between the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ vote] the better. It reflects that society is in harmony while a close margin indicates considerable dispute and a lack of consensus to clearly direct the country,” he said.
The economist explained that if the vote result, under a transparent process, showed unanimity and people accepted it, the country would likely move forward without losing any economic and investment opportunities.
If the majority unanimously votes to adopt the draft, Anusorn said the road map to democracy proposed by the junta should be carried out. If not, the charter should be dropped and the country should use the 1997 or 2007 constitutions as guidelines for a more democratic process and constitution. But if the charter is rejected by a narrow margin, he recommended that the authorities find out what the problematic issues are and fix them before writing a new draft.
But in the short term he predicted the result would have neither a negative or a positive impact on the economy, saying it should still expand by 3.2 to 3.5 per cent this year with increased investment from both government and private sectors.