Official results of from Sunday's referendum show that two-thirds of Thais backed the junta-drafted constitution and support enhanced powers for a military-backed senate in selecting a prime minister.

Many see this referendum as a test of confidence in military rule, in effect since 2014 when General Prayuth Chan O Cha seized power from elected leader Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The referendum itself was controversial, with two questions: one seeking support for a constitution crafted by the junta and another seeking approval for it to appoint most of the 250 senate members empowered to select the next PM. The manner in which the referendum was conducted was also controversial, with heavy restrictions on campaigning casting doubts over the democratic legitimacy of the process. 

 

With the results in, the pressure is on the ruling junta to deliver on its promises and steer Southeast Asia's second-largest economy out of a decade of political turmoil. Military coups are not unusual in Thailand – there were 12 successful coups and seven failed ones since the one in 1932 that overturned the monarchy – but this country of 68 million is weary of political instability and prolonged economic malaise.

Will the outcome of this referendum rally the country? This remains a dream in the short term, as the referendum exposed deep divisions in Thailand.

Red vs Yellow

Preliminary results from the referendum show Thais voted along party lines.

Northern Thais rejected the referendum. Many are rural farmers who benefited from Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's policies during his rule from 2001 to 2006, and are known as the 'red shirts' or loyal supporters of Thaksin and his allies. They are staunchly against the military, including figures like Gen Prayuth who ousted Thaksin in coup in 2006 and who also led the coup to unseat Yingluck in 2014. Though in self-imposed exile, Thaksin remains influential through the Puea Thai Party.

The 'yellow shirts', mainly royalists and middle-class urbanites opposed to the Shinawatras, were instrumental in supporting the coups against the siblings. They voted for the referendum, arguing that the military rulers present the best chance to lay the foundations for boosting economic growth, of which they say they were robbed by corrupt civilian politicians like the Shinawatras.

Pro-democracy, anti-junta

Thais who reject the referendum say military rule is a huge step backwards for Thailand's democratic progress. The military's constitution – with few checks on government and key clauses skewed to consolidate the junta's rule  — reinforces military power. Moreover, the confusion surrounding the content of the referendum, the ban on campaigning  and intimidation tactics used to quell criticism of the exercise are signs of the junta's draconian curbs on freedoms, say those who voted against. The junta government earned widespread condemnation following arrests of politicians and activists who criticised the referendum. They also point to the voter turn-out of 55%, well below the targeted 80%. For these reasons, they see the referendum exercise as a hollow show of democracy, deepening their distrust of the ruling junta.

Road to economic progress

Some backed the referendum in hopes that military rule for another year could provide political stability for those planning investments and infrastructure developments. Military rule would ensure the country develops a strong economic foundation for future growth, say some business leaders.

Investors reacted positively to the referendum result. They view the outcome as beneficial to reducing risk in the short term. The baht strengthened and Thailand's stock market rose to its highest level in three months following news that the military government will be in place for another year or until the next elections.

Conclusion

This is a delicate moment in Thailand's history. While some who voted for the referendum do not like the military, they see no other choice. Others who voted against it say they cannot allow the military to tighten its grip on power. In an attempt to reassure Thais, Prime Minister Prayuth reiterated that elections will be held next year. Still, his government has much more to do to win trust from the electorate, a large portion of whom either did not vote or rejected his constitution.

As if to remind him of the tasks ahead, Thailand's national daily, Bangkok Post, published an editorial with this excerpt: 'Sunday's vote was not a mandate for a one-man rule. It was a call from across the nation to bring the nation back to freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the right to be heard by the government.'

Photo: Flickr/Daniel Snelson