BANGKOK - Thailand’s military is looking to extend its government oversight following Sunday’s referendum approving a new, junta-backed constitution, legal experts say. But, one adds, the vote didn’t directly endorse military leadership.
The draft charter – which won 15 million of the 25 million votes cast, or 61 percent – strengthens the military’s influence. A controversial clause enables a military-appointed 250-member Senate to join with the lower house’s 500 elected members in selecting a new prime minister in the next election.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said at a Tuesday press conference that a general election would be held in 2017. He reiterated the point in a nationally televised address Wednesday in which he also called for unity.
"I would like us to leave our differences, those feelings of like and dislike, acceptance or disagreement in the ballot boxes and walk forward," said the prime minister, who leads the National Peace Keeping Council (NCPO). "The referendum may be over but your mission and our mission is not over yet."
The referendum was the first to test public support since a May 2014 military coup led by the prime minister, the army’s chief at the time. Sunday’s turnout was estimated at almost 60 percent. The government had tamped down opposition to the charter before the referendum.
The United States and European Union have called for an open election as soon as possible, and for unrestricted political debate leading up to it.
Thais last went to the polls in 2011 and elected the Pheu Thai Party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra. That government was ousted in 2014.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said Sunday's outcome highlighted voters’ desire to move to general elections.
“It was not a direct endorsement for the legitimacy of the military government. But Thai people don’t really vote for a document. They are used to voting for individuals. So the overall result suggests that people want to have their say at the polls. It’s a way of going forward to the polls, towards elections.”
Henning Glaser, a lecturer in law at Thammasat University, said the new constitution reflects a trend in Thailand of "anti-electoral" charters, similar to those in the United States and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
"Thai constitutionalism is always or has always been fundamentally anti-electoral," Glaser said. "However, looking at this draft constitution we see a kind of radicalization of this anti-electoral stance."
The Pheu Thai Party opposed the charter. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva personally opposed the draft, leading to splits within his party.
Glaser said the main political parties, such as Pheu Thai and Democrat, also known as Phak Prachathipat, will be weakened under the new constitution.
"In terms of the election law, bigger parties will lose. This affects especially Pheu Thai and Phak Prachthipat parties, while middle-sized parties will relatively gain in elections,” Glaser said.
“We have a weak parliament consisting of weak politicians and political parties, which are highly fragmented. We will have a weak government, too," he said.
The 250-member appointed senate will include six military leaders and senior defense officials for at least five years.
“We have very probably a government which will be represented by the powers supporting the government right now," Glaser said, predicting the power bloc would rule into 2017 "if there’s no major interruption."
The latest charter is Thailand’s 20th since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932 and the second written since May 2014. The first was voted down by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) last September.
Suchit Bumbongkam, a Chulalongkorn University professor of politics who collaborated in writing the earlier draft charter, said the military leaders will not relinquish power easily.
"They will continue to play a very vital role in setting up the government" and "overseeing national security issues," the professor said. "It might be possible that one of the leaders of the NCPO would be the prime minister."
Under Thailand’s current interim constitution, Prayuth replaced martial law, imposed soon after the May 2014 coup, with Article 44, a law granting the leader absolute power. Rights groups have described it as "draconian."
The law – and others enacted by the military since taking power – grants soldiers the power of arrest, prevents political gatherings of more than five people and allows for media censorship.
David Streekfuss, director of the Council on International Educational Exchange - Thailand, said such laws are expected to remain in place even after a new government comes to power.
"Hundreds of laws and announcements, directives – all remain legal ... even after an elected government " comes to power, Streekfuss said. "All these things that we see – the suppressing freedom of speech – will stay in play. So you get more than just a constitution by voting for this draft, you’d get the NCPO forever and ever."
But analysts say voters were willing to let the military take a central role while Thailand undergoes a transition against the backdrop of the popular but ailing 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulaydej.
Chualonglongkorn University’s Thitinan said many Thais are hoping the transition will be peaceful.
People "want to see some kind of peaceful and viable transition and that’s why they’ve cut some slack for the military," he said.