A tale of two referendums: Brexit and Thailand’s constitution

By Dimitra Stefanidou

In the referendum of 23 June, Britons voted to leave the European Union. On 7 August, Thais will have to decide whether the Senate should be an appointed or elected one. This referendum will influence the ruling military junta government, National Council of Peace and Order.

British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned shortly after the Leave camp won. When asked if he would do the same if a similar situation occurred, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha confirmed that he would not. “I set my own rules,” Prayut said. “He (Cameron) and me became prime minister through different means. His country and ours have different problems”.

The leader of the Thai Democratic Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva said that “the government, particularly the prime minister, should take a lesson from David Cameron and resign if the draft constitution is shot down in the referendum”. Former Senate Speaker Nikom Wairatpanij said that he does not think that the military government is brave enough in order to resign honourably like Daivd Cameron did, if the draft constitution is rejected.

David Cameron was won power in 2010, and reelected on 2015. Prayut and Thailand’s ruling junta took power after a bloodless coup d’état in May 2014, after ousting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Prayut claimed that he sprang the coup in order to restore normality to Thailand quickly. Soon after, he imposed a martial law and many restrictions and bans on media, internet and political gatherings. Many have questioned when democratic government will be returned to the people.

On 19 April this year, General Prayut said, “They [critics] have no rights to say that they disagree [with the draft constitution]… I don’t allow anyone to debate or hold a press conference about the draft constitution. Yet they still disobey my orders. They will be arrested and jailed for 10 years. No one will be exempted when the Referendum Act becomes effective [after publication in the Royal Gazette]. Not even the media. Why don’t people respect the law instead of asking for democracy and human rights all the time?”

Prayut’s plans of running the referendum are considered unconstitutional, as it would impose serious impediments on the right of freedom to expression. The Act (Section 61 paragraph 2) includes provisions that issue serious penalties for anyone that campaigns in any way against the referendum.

The purpose of any referendum is to give citizens the opportunity to vote on a specific decision. It follows that the government should ensure the result of the vote is taken seriously.

Results from referendums are generally not legally binding. In other words, the results of a referendum signals the people’s will, but does not automatically lead to policy changes. In Thailand, according to the 2007 Constitution, the prime minister can decide alone on calling for a referendum, and the result can be either binding or not, according to the percentage of the votes – double majority for binding, 50% of the votes for indicative.

This gives relatively unlimited power to the government to ignore the decision of the electorate, if the number of votes allow for it.

Inevitably, a referendum result is too politically powerful to be ignored. It brings about divisions among citizens who are called to express their opinion. Governments which decide to ignore referendum results do so at their peril.