All quiet in Chachoengsao

This post is part of New Mandala‘s month-long feature on Thailand’s 2007 constitution referendum. 

In Chachoengsao, things are still very quiet.

I have not seen any banners or billboards pointing to the upcoming referendum. From public appearances, one would never know that there will be a referendum on August 19. In the office of the editor of a local newspaper the two booklets of the draft constitution used for public hearings were still on the shelf. And she knew that there would be a referendum, but she could not say when it would be held. Even the law regulating the referendum is yet to be passed by the National Legislative Assembly, although there has been a Constitution Drafting Assembly-issued order on some basic features of the referendum for some months now.

People involved with the referendum at the national and provincial levels have become concerned about voter turnout, especially after the period of registration for voters who wanted to cast their ballots outside their province yielded a relatively small number compared to recent general elections. This seems to reflect both a lack of information and a lack of interest. Moreover, in general elections the turnout of about 73% vitally depended on the high profile of such elections, vigorous public campaigns in local constituencies, compulsory voting, and—above all—the employment of vote canvassers (hua khanaen) and vote buying by the candidates. As an official at the Provincial Election Commission told me, “We have none of these means. Voting is not compulsory. Thus, we have to depend on public relations alone.” Nevertheless, the chairperson of the Election Commission of Thailand has already stated that he would be satisfied with a turnout of 50%.

The Election Commission’s public relations budget has just been approved. It has produced one small brochure describing technical aspects of the referendum, and in Chachoengsao the Provincial Election Commission has produced its own leaflet. The provincial Constitution Drafting Assembly has also prepared a provisional public relations plan and started its activities. Mostly, they will conduct seminars to inform people about features of the new constitution—so far, even this basic document is unavailable in Chachoengsao. The central Constitution Drafting Assembly has sent leaflets to its provincial branches for distribution. I have also talked to the chairperson of the provincial Democrat Party. The national party has approved the constitution draft but, at the provincial level, the party’s branches might not conduct any activities in support, except probably in the South. I still have to contact the Thai Rak Thai people regarding what they will do to promote a no vote. The party has already produced a brochure to promote the rejection of the draft constitution.

Finally, in many places, the referendum must compete for attention with vigorously fought and advertised local elections. When I went to the municipality of Ko Khanun in Phanomsarakham district with the Povincial Election Commission advertising for the upcoming elections, to take place on August 5, were ubiquitous. Again, nothing pointed to the up-coming referendum.

Image 1: “Please vote for…number 1″

 Please vote for…

Image 2: “Love your local area, love democracy – you must go vote”

Love your local area, love democracy - you must go and vote.

Later on, I talked to a shopkeeper about the referendum. Yes, she had heard about it. But no, she could not say when it would take place. Anyway, without being prompted, she said that most people in Ko Khanun preferred the 1997 Constitution to the present draft. Just when I wanted to ask for reasons she volunteered one.  From her perspective, it was not a good thing to expand the village headmen’s terms from four years to ten years or even to retirement age at 60. After all, voters might have thought that the candidate was good, only to discover later that he could not work or was corrupt. How could they then get rid of him? Obviously, this reasoning makes perfect sense—only that it has nothing to do with the constitution, because terms of office for kamnan and village headmen are regulated in an ordinary law, not the constitution.

About Michael H. Nelson, Guest Contributor