TOPICS : Rural voters cut junta’s referendum win

Thailand’s rural voters stood up to the country’s powerful military by refusing to march in step with the junta’s drum-beat for political change at the first-ever referendum for a new constitution held here. Voters from the country’s north-east, home to the poorest section of the electorate, delivered an emphatic ‘no’ vote in the ple-biscite held on Sunday to approve the country’s 18th constitution. According to the final tallies confirmed on Monday, nearly 62% of those from the north-east who voted, or 4.6 million people, cast a ballot against the constitution drafted by a military-appointed committee.

This rejection echoed in other areas, too, such as the northern provinces, where 46%, or 2.29 million, of those who voted marked the negative box on the ballot paper. In all, some 10.2 million people, or 41.4% of the electorate that participated, came together as part of the ‘no’ bandwagon. It is a number that takes the sheen off the pro-military political establishment claiming an emphatic victory at the referendum, where those who voted for the constitution accounted for 56.7% of the ballots cast, or an estimated 14.3 million voters.

The country’s military leaders, who came to power following a coup last September, will also have to contend with another troubling number emerging from the plebiscite. Over 19 million of this South-east Asian nation’s 44. 2 million eligible voters abstained from voting, indicating that the ‘no’ votes and those who stayed away account for nearly two-thirds of the registered voters. “This is anything but a vote of confidence for the junta; it is a remarkable outcome,” Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said. “Backing for the junta and its attempts to reorganise Thai politics does not have as wide an approval rating as the military and its supporters made it seem.”

What is more, the slim victory margin for the junta and its military-appointed government comes after the generals used the advantage of incumbency to silence critics and the anti-constitution groups through a barrage of police, military and state-sanctioned measures. “It may have been a peaceful poll but it was not free and fair. There were many restrictions placed during the referendum campaign period,” Somsri Hananuntasuk, director of the Asia Network for Free Elections, said. “But there was also less vote-buying this time than before.”

The rural voters, in fact, were loyal supporters of Thaksin, who is currently living in exile in London. They ensured his party won two thumping victories at consecutive general elections in 2001 and 2005. For that, they were accused of being “stupid” and “ignorant” by Bangkok’s political elite, editorial writers, television personalities and even by university dons after last year’s coup. “Those who voted against the constitution revealed that they are highly sophisticated and are not stupid villagers as people have described them,” says Giles, the academic from Chulalongkorn University. “There was no Thaksin to follow this time.” — IPS