Dictators use referendums too

Thailand’s eighteenth Constitution has been drafted. By September it will go to the country’s first ever referendum. If it is passed by simple majority, the military government that took over last year will declare its mission accomplished and ostensibly transfer power back to civilian hands.

Amid more and more questions about the coming vote, one writer in a Bangkok newspaper recently assured readers that “constitutional referendums are commonly held in democratic countries around the world.” But this is only half the story. As the regime in Thailand intends to demonstrate, any government can use a referendum for any purpose. They are not a special characteristic of democratic countries. On the contrary, dictators like them too.

Louis Napoleon (above right) was the first modern autocrat to call referendums. In 1851 he used one to justify his overthrow of the French republic. The citizenry was offered a simple choice: Napoleon or chaos. Officials were warned that their jobs depended upon ensuring that the people didn’t opt for chaos. The opposition was harassed; the result was predictable. Napoleon made himself the second emperor of France, after his better-known uncle, and established a system of government that was a precursor to fascism: Adolf Hitler employed many of Napoleon’s methods, including referendum, to obtain his objectives.

Authoritarian rulers the world over have since made bogus appeals to popular opinion. General Augusto Pinochet used a plebiscite to pass the 1980 Constitution upon which the armed forces consolidated control over the government in Chile. Closer to home, Ferdinand Marcos called three — the last in 1976 amended the Constitution to keep him on as president, granted him special powers to declare an emergency, and gave him immunity from prosecution once out of office. In Sri Lanka, J.R. Jayawardene held one to extend Parliament by six years and propel his country into bloody madness that persists until today.

So the generals in Thailand are among friends. But what happens if their draft doesn’t get approved? That’s the clincher. Under Section 32 of the interim Constitution, then the junta “shall hold a joint meeting with the Council of Ministers to consider and revise one of the previously promulgated constitutions.” Put simply, the choice for people in Thailand will be between a fraudulent draft charter and leaving the army to decide everything itself: not democracy, but blackmail.

Apart from its legalized coercion of the electorate, the regime has been trying hard to make sure that other conditions are right for the vote. All political party activity remains banned across the country. A tribunal set up in place of the dissolved Constitution Court has been given the job of disbanding the former ruling party, and ensuring that any other threats associated with the previous government and its supporters are eliminated, or at least kept bottled up. Martial law remains in force across half of the provinces, and military propaganda efforts are in full swing. Persons speaking out against the draft are accused of being against the country’s development and not wanting a return to electoral process, no matter how flawed.

It won’t be a surprise when the Constitution is passed. Already polls are tipping that at least 60 percent of the population will vote yes, not out of trust in the charter or government, but just to get the stupid thing over and done with. As in France over 150 years ago, the generals in Thailand are counting on this. Their referendum has nothing in common with those “held in democratic countries around the world” because Thailand is not a democratic country. Rather, the vote is intended to sanction traditional elite groups as the final arbiters of social and political conflict, over and above the general public. It is about the endorsement of fraud, just as it was for Louis Napoleon, Augusto Pinochet and Ferdinand Marcos. And like them and theirs, neither this regime nor its Constitution will last.




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