Thai govt's manipulation of referendum a masterstroke

Thai govt's manipulation of referendum a masterstroke

The government has finally come up with a good strategy to insert a tricky question in the national referendum on the draft charter set for January next year.

A fiercely debated topic emerged last week when National Reform Council (NRC) member Paiboon Nititawan, who is also a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), proposed postponing the general election for two years so that national reforms could be completed. He said the public wanted that.

Many of his fellow reformers support the proposal, but anti-coup groups strongly object to it because it would result in the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and the government staying in power longer than they had promised in their road map.

Those who oppose the government and the NCPO claimed that the purpose of the proposal was for either the government or one of its appointed agencies to try and retain power, although Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has insisted that he has no intention of doing so.

The image of the government has worsened since a joint meeting between the NCPO and the Cabinet concluded giving the NRC and the NCPO the opportunity to each insert one question in the national referendum.

Thammasat University political scientist Attasit Pankaew said Paiboon's proposal did not indicate the NCPO was trying to prolong its power, but the questions inserted in the referendum by relevant agencies could be proof of whether there was an inclination in those agencies or the government to stay in power longer.

If the NCPO and the Cabinet have no intention of staying in power longer, the public should not be asked if it wants to see two more years of reform before the next election is held, while it should not have been taken for granted that the NRC and the NCPO get one question each in the referendum.

It is also worth mentioning again that if the public votes down the draft charter and the idea of two more years of national reform, the drafting process would go back to square one and the CDC and the NRC would have to get new members.

This outcome would surely delay the election.

Besides, there is no guarantee the new members would not be handpicked by the government and would have more legitimacy than the existing bodies.

Also, if those who oppose the government swallow their pride and vote to approve the new charter in order for the election to be held as soon as possible, a new constitution drafted by people they dislike would be enforced. But on the plus side, the NCPO, NLA, NRC, CDC and the Cabinet's terms would soon end.

At the end of the process, the junta may find it has upstaged its opposition with a brilliant strategy.

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Prayut Chan-O-Cha
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