Constitutional reform is not uncommon in Thailand, in fact, the country’s constitution has been rewritten 20 times since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932, usually following coups or protests ousting military-backed governments. There have been 12 successful coups in the country since 1932.
The country’s most recent constitutional reforms began in mid-2014. Thailand’s military-backed National Council for Peace and Order took power following the May 2014 coup, unseating the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Presenting a constitutional referendum is a key component of the roadmap to a functional democracy. The country’s new constitution was backed by voters during a recent referendum, as well as by the new king, His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, giving the government its first popular mandate. With national elections set for 2018 or 2019, peace and stability are expected to prevail, even against criticism that the new constitution is strengthening military rule.
A referendum was held in Thailand in August 2016, during which Thais voted overwhelmingly in favour of the new constitution that was put forth. An estimated 61% of voters had backed the new charter after 90% of votes were counted, with voter turnout standing at 55%. The last constitutional referendum, held in 2007, had 57% voter turnout.
The referendum has been met with some degree of criticism from international advocacy groups, according to media outlets. Critics of the draft face the possibility of fines and even imprisonment, with the targeted suppression of “no” campaigners leading Amnesty International to criticise the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Despite these objections, the reform process was non-violent and no major irregularities were reported at polling stations, enabling a stable political and business environment to be maintained. Despite the death of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016, the economic shocks to the country were relatively minor, and calm presided as the late king’s son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, became the new king on December 6, 2016. He is now known as King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, the 10th king in the Chakri Dynasty.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn requested constitutional changes related to royal powers in January 2017, and days later Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed amendments, demonstrating the lasting positive relationship between the monarchy and current government.
On April 6, 2017 King Maha Vajiralongkorn officially signed off on the changes, thereby allowing the document to be signed into law. Press reports indicate that the new charter allows for a military-appointed Upper House, with six seats reserved for the military, as well as a proportional voting system that could reduce the influence of political parties. The Constitutional Court will be strengthened, and any future government must agree to a legally-binding 20-year plan, which is yet to be made public.
Many have criticised the new constitution for enshrining military power and clamping down on democracy. An April 2017 news report noted that it had not introduced bipartisan checks or created an independent judiciary. Previous constitutions, including the 1997 People’s Constitution, granted greater suffrage and independence to lawmakers.
However, the success of recent reforms could be interpreted as broad approval of the military junta, which had lacked a popular mandate prior to the amendments. The military argues that the new constitution will reduce political corruption and maintain stability, a critical consideration as Thailand seeks to attract new investors. The new constitution sets the stage for the long-awaited national elections, which are expected to take place within 19 months of April 2017, although they have been postponed in the past.