BANGKOK — It was the first defeat at polls in over a decade for Thaksin Shinawatra’s political clan, which was previously thought to command unwavering support in the north and northeast.
Despite the call from Thaksin, de facto leader of the Redshirt movement, to reject the charter favored by the military regime one week ago in the Aug. 7 referendum, results saw five northern provinces that had backed him consistently since his 2006 ouster vote for it. Did the shift signal a less reliably red blob in the north?
After the dust settled, several northerners say they’re not surprised by the narrow victory for the junta-backed charter given the crackdown on campaigning against it, the use of state mechanisms to influence voters and the confusing, legalistic language of the charter.
Some believe many voted not because they support the junta but because they want quick elections, and remain Redshirts and solidly for former premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra.
In the 17 northern provinces, the final results revealed the Yes vote won 56.7 percent to 42.3 percent, with 2.78 million votes for endorsing the charter and 2.04 million rejecting it. The anti-charter vote only prevailed in only five of the 17 provinces.
“There’s a group of people who say they just endorsed it so the military will be gone. Actually many hold such views. They want quick results,” said Prathai Piriyasurawong, an assistant professor at Chiang Rai Rajabhat University’s Faculty of Management Science. “The number of Redshirts is not decreasing, I can assure you. And when there’s a general election, the Pheu Thai Party will stage a comeback.”
Prathai was upset and alleged the military used village headmen to cajole villagers to simply endorse the charter draft, however. Also, many voters in the north, particularly the less-informed, he said, had great difficulty grasping the charter’s content.
“Some asked why there was no names of candidates on the ballot,” he said.
Prathai said the military entered some communities which voted heavily against the charter in order to “create understanding” and ask what led them to voting No.
“This is a curb of people’s free expression,” Prathai said. “Would it be better to just draft a charter and put it in there that everyone must endorse it?”
Prathai believes people must be able to see the irony of the situation.
“A group of people hate the junta so much but they went to vote Yes, as they reasoned: Wouldn’t it be better to see them leave and have elections?” he said.
Chiang Mai writer and translator Pakawadee Virapaspong said the results were not really different from the 2007 referendum which was followed by the Pheu Thai Party emerging victorious again when elections were held.
“People believe they will get quick elections. Many people don’t understand the content of the charter draft, however. Some officials also told villagers that there’ll be free education up to the college level. The loyalty for Thaksin and Yingluck is undiminished, however.”
Pipob Udomittipong, a political commentator based in Chiang Mai’s San Kamphaeng district – Thaksin’s home town – said the same.
“This [referendum] wasn’t a vote for a political party, and yet the results remained close,” said Pipob, adding that in many provinces, the victory for Yes was quite narrow. In Nan province, for example, 114,493 endorsed the charter draft while 101,586 voted to reject it.
Pipob said there’s no indicator the Thaksin-Yingluck stronghold in the north is sliding.
He acknowledge however that there tends to be an urban-rural divide in the north, such in in Chiang Mai, where urban voters tend to endorse the charter draft as they support the junta while rural voters rejected it.
Bangkok-based TV host Lakkana Punwichai, a native of Chiang Mai better known as Kampaka, also said she wasn’t surprised by the results. She stressed that the results could have been different if politicians and activists critical of the charter draft were allowed to freely campaign.
Lakkana said there are rumors of local officials going out to communities to discuss the referendum, but like many of the rumors circulated since the vote, she has no concrete evidence.
Many hill tribe members have difficulty grasping the content of the charter draft as are more reliant on verbal communication, she said, adding that fully literate northerners such as herself found the legalistic language in the charter draft opaque and inaccessible.
“They endorsed it so there would be elections,” Lakkana said.
She acknowledged that many urban northerners who support the junta wanted to signal their approval of the military staying in power longer through future elected governments in order to give Thailand a “recovery time” for a decade or so.
“Voting Yes doesn’t impact them like voting for a political party. Some Pheu Thai supporters may have even voted yes because they want elections,” she said, adding however that the Redshirt movement have been battered by the junta in the north, are in fear, but will be waiting for the general elections in order to spring back.
Thanaphong Muensan, a native of Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district who’s now doing his postgraduate studies at Ramkhamhaeng University and is a political activist said northern voters chose short-term interests, which is the promise of quick elections, in endorsing the charter draft.
“The general economy can also grow again,” Thanaphong said of the rationale. “Our electoral culture is not about common interests. My father said local politicians want to see elections because they have been out of power for two years now – and no matter under what rules it’s still better than being under military rule. Villagers at my village also said they want to see the country move forward. That’s all they think of.”
He believes the identity of Redshirts in the north is fluid, adding that no one should count on an eternal loyalty of northerners to the Shinawatra siblings who hailed from Chiang Mai, however.
Also, said Thanaphong, it shows that democracy activists haven’t been working hard enough to convince voters otherwise. The activist partly blamed the Election Commission as well, however, for its failure to facilitate more northerners to enable them to register and vote away from their home provinces. Thanaphong said there’s many migrant workers from the north in Bangkok and these people would mostly have voted against the charter draft because they’re critical of the junta.
Update: Story was updated to reflect final voting totals in the 17 northern provinces.