Charter Referendum Doomed to Failure by 'Mistake'

Deputy Prime Minister Visanu Krue-ngma (right) listens to a debate in the interim parliament today in Bangkok.

BANGKOK — Three days before the draft of the junta’s constitution takes its first step toward a public vote, a serious defect has been found in the rules for how it will be approved by the public.

Instead of fixing the problem – a clause requiring more than half the entire electorate show up and vote yes – Deputy Prime Minister Visanu Krue-ngam, who wrote the rule into the interim charter after the 2014 coup, said a little re-interpretation is all that’s needed.

“I have to admit that the wording of the law may look problematic, but I want you to think of it in a simpler way,” Visanu said today, suggesting the law, as it is written, be ignored.

The revelation that the laws in place set an impossible threshold for the charter to be adopted were pointed out by observers – who went and read the relevant section – following incorrect assertions earlier this week by Visanu and the man charged with running the election.


"Suppose that 20 million people showed up for the referendum, and if more than 10 million people approve it, that will mean that the charter is approved by the people," Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn said Sunday when asked how the election would be decided.

Visanu repeated the same thing yesterday at a news conference, saying it would fall to a simple majority of votes cast.

Both men were wrong, however.

As pointed out by Niran Pantarakit, a member of the junta’s National Reform Council, which will vote Sunday whether to forward the draft charter to a public vote, that’s not what the law says.

Section 37 of the interim constitution states that support from more than half of “those who have right to vote” throughout the country is required to pass the new charter, Niran pointed out.


Section 37 in the junta's interim charter, the current law of the land, specifies that the proposed constitution can only be passed by the votes of a majority of Thailand's entire electorate, which is estimated to be around 47 million voters.


“The Election Commission says we have about 47 million voters,” he said Wednesday. “Half of that is 23.5 million. … If you look at the 2007 constitutional referendum, it was approved by only 14 million votes. So how can the current one be approved? … Where can you find 23.5 million votes?”

That left him with a poor assessment for the charter’s passage under existing law..

“It means that the chance of this constitution being passed in the referendum is none,” he added. “I am 1,000 percent confident. None.”

The interim charter was written by Visanu after the junta seized power, and he personally oversaw the legislative addition of Section 37’s language regarding how the charter would be approved. Approving the charter is an essential step in the junta's "roadmap" to restore democracy in Thailand.

“If the majority of those who have right to vote approve the constitution draft, the prime minister must submit the draft to His Majesty the King for royal endorsement within 30 days after the referendum result is announced,” Section 37 reads.

The same section specifically defines “those who have right to vote” as people who would qualify as voters in ordinary elections.


Mathematically Challenging

There are 47 million voters in Thailand. Therefore, under Section 37, more than 23.5 million votes will be required to pass the new constitution, which was written by junta-appointed drafters. The last time the public was asked to vote on a military-drafted constitution in 2007, 26 million voters showed up at the polls.

No political party in Thai history has ever won 23.5 million votes.

In fact the largest number of votes ever achieved in an election happened in 2001, when 14.6 million voters delivered a landslide victory to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. And that was a high turnout year: 38 million voters participated.

The reform council’s Niran said yesterday the junta must amend Section 37 if it hopes to score a victory in the upcoming referendum.

Niran is among the faction which opposes the current draft of the charter and prefers to extend the junta’s stay in power in favor of “reform before election.”

He said the reform council should solve the issue by rejecting the charter when they vote on in Sunday. Should they approve the charter, Niran said, the interim parliament should immediately amend the current interim charter to solve the problem.

He said going forward without fixing the language would invite disaster.

“I want them to first amend this constitution to make it correct first, because if they let the referendum to go forward, there will be people arguing the procedure was improper.”

But Visanu, the deputy prime minister, said instead of fixing the language, all the junta needs to get things right is apply their own interpretation.

“You understand things different to the way I understand them,” Visanu said. “I have to admit that the wording of the law may look problematic, but I want you to think of it in a simpler way.”

His “simpler way” is that the authorities should just count the votes cast and let the majority decide the outcome, despite what the constitution says.

When a reporter asked why the interim charter’s text did not match Visanu’s interpretation, the deputy prime minister said, essentially, that it’s complicated.

“There are many technical issues,” he said. “When we wrote it, we thought we made it clear.”



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