BANGKOK – Sunday marks one of the most important votes in Thailand's history, yet there have been no political rallies, no independent campaigns and virtually no debates. The junta made sure of that.
"Yes" votes on a new constitution and an accompanying measure would keep the military government in control for several years and enshrine a watered-down democracy that gives much power to appointed rather than elected officials. More than 100 people who tried to campaign against the referendum on social media have been thrown in jail, and open criticism has been made punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
"The lack of open campaigning is effectively a one-sided campaign. The intention is to have campaigns for the constitution, not against the constitution, because a lot of credibility is on the line for the junta," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "But it also means it has boomeranged because the other side now has gathered some steam and now we are seeing more anti-charter movement rising."
The junta, which came to power in a May 2014 coup, claims the new constitution will usher in a new era of clean politics and stable democracy in a country chronically short of both in recent years, sometimes sliding into violent internal political conflict.
Critics of the draft constitution have a long list of objections.
Chief among them: for at least a five-year "transition" period, the Senate will be a 250-member body whose members would be appointed by the junta, and include the commanders of the army and other security services. A deadlock in the 500-member elected Lower House could trigger a combined session of lower and upper chambers that could select a prime minister who is not an elected member of Parliament.
Also, emergency decrees enacted by the junta without any parliamentary consent remain valid as law. So-called independent bodies, stacked with conservative appointees, would hold "disproportionately broad and unchecked powers" that hang like a Damocles sword over elected politicians, said the international human rights consortium FIDH and the Union for Civil Liberty in Thailand.
"The draft charter creates undemocratic institutions, weakens the power of future elected governments, and is likely to fuel political instability," they said in a report.
Even if Thais vote "no" Sunday, the military will remain in control for the foreseeable future. Junta leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has promised to hold elections next year, without elaborating on how that would happen if voters reject the draft constitution.
"I have no intention of holding on to power. I always said that we will have an election in 2017. ... We want the country to move forward and figure out ways to have stability for at least five years," Prayuth said Friday.
"If I was a real dictator, I would have not allowed the referendum or promised to hold elections."
Thitinan said a "no" vote "would be a setback to the credibility of the junta, certainly, but it's not going to see the back of them. They have insisted to remain in power. A "no" vote will mean we start over."
Thailand has endured 13 successful military coups and 11 attempted takeovers since it replaced absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
Leaders of the latest coup say political conflict had made the country ungovernable and that military rule was necessary to bring stability. It set up hand-picked committees to craft a charter that would enshrine its declared goal of reforming politics by eliminating corruption.
Norachit Sinhaseni, a member of Constitution Drafting Commission, said Thai people "feel there is a lot corruption going on, money is being wasted and a lot of it is going into the pockets of politicians. So what they want and what we are trying to do is have a cleaner government, have better politicians who view the interests of the people at heart."
Some other observers believe the draft constitution has a different aim: to weaken allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the central figure in a battle that has roiled Thai politics since 2006.
Thaksin's political machine has easily won every national election since 2001, relying on the support of working-class and rural voters who benefited from the populist policies he implemented. Leading the other side is Thailand's traditional ruling class, royalists unnerved by the political support Thaksin commands, especially as it contemplates its future. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose righteous rule has anchored the kingdom since 1946, is 88 and ailing.
The army ousted Thaksin in a 2006 coup, saying it needed to keep order after his so-called "yellow shirt" critics took to the streets, accusing him of abuse of power, corruption and disrespecting the king. He has lived abroad since 2008 to avoid prison for a corruption conviction that he says was politically motivated. The 2014 coup ousted his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected prime minister in 2011 but buffeted by protests sparked by legislation that would have pardoned Thaksin.
Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire, came to power by taking advantage of provisions in Thailand's 1997 constitution, generally acknowledged as the most democratic in the country's history. Crucially, that charter sought to stabilize the polity by curbing smaller parties that routinely sold their support to join ruling coalitions.
Those who brought Thaksin down now seek to weaken major political parties, which would ensure that real power stays in the hands of what is dubbed the permanent bureaucracy: the military, the courts and other unelected guardians of the conservative status quo.
Thitinan, the political scientist, said their premise is that elected politicians are the root of Thailand's problems, so it is important to check their power.
The draft constitution would make it "very easy to disband parties, keep politicians in line, impeach politicians, and it will enforce a coalition government of weaker, smaller parties," he said. "As a result, we will see power and authority shifted away from elected representatives to appointed agencies and individuals."
Chaturon Chaisang, who served in the Cabinets of both Thaksin and Yingluck, told The Associated Press that his biggest objection is that "the draft charter will not allow Thai people to determine the future of this country."
The referendum vote, he said, "will be meaningless, so the government after the election will not respond to the needs of the people and so there will be conflict in the future."
APTN producer Tassanee Vejapongsa in Bangkok contributed to this report.