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How to Get the Public to Enshrine the Power of Your Military Junta: Thailand Edition

Getting the voting public to approve your constitutional rewrite can be trying work.

PATTANI, THAILAND - AUGUST 19: A Thai soldier casts his vote in Thailand's first referendum for a new draft constitution on August 19, 2007 in Pattani Province, Thailand. Some 45 million voters were asked to vote in the kingdon's first-ever referendum to accept or reject a constitution drafted by the military-appointed committee in the wake of September 19, 2006 coup that ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.  (Photo by Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images)
PATTANI, THAILAND - AUGUST 19: A Thai soldier casts his vote in Thailand's first referendum for a new draft constitution on August 19, 2007 in Pattani Province, Thailand. Some 45 million voters were asked to vote in the kingdon's first-ever referendum to accept or reject a constitution drafted by the military-appointed committee in the wake of September 19, 2006 coup that ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. (Photo by Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images)

Seizing power from a democratically elected government and then getting the voting public to approve your constitutional rewrite can be trying work. But the military junta ruling Thailand managed to do just that in a constitutional referendum last weekend. Here’s a handy users guide for those planning to steal a page from Bangkok’s uniformed rulers and hold their own dubious referendums.

— Make sure that the new constitution has 279 distinct articles so most people don’t read the entire thing or understand what exactly they’re voting for.

— Don’t bother to get out the vote. Fifty-four percent turnout is more than enough to approve your country’s foundational document.

— Hold your referendum in a country the has seen 20 new constitutions in 84 years. That way, no one will think of a new constitution as overly unusual.

— Don’t allow any campaigning. Political discourse can influence people to vote against your wishes.

— Deploy 200,000 police officers to “maintain order” during the vote. Any voter intimidation is just a bonus.

— Arrest more than 100 people for violating campaign rules and threaten them with long prison terms.

— Do not allow outside monitors to observe the vote.

— If anyone rips up their ballot, arrest them.

— Detain any activists who seem like they might convince voters that the new constitution is a bad idea.

— Ignore what human rights NGOs have to say about your referendum. What do they know?

— Make voters so tired of political instability that they feel they have no other option.

— Reduce the power of political parties by changing the procedure by which legislative seats get apportioned. When political parties are too strong, they can get meddlesome.

— Include in the document a provision that allows the military to appoint the Senate — then have the Senate play a key role in appointing the prime minister. That way, prime ministers won’t cause any trouble.

— Make sure the new document includes a provision whereby the military can continue to remove elected leaders, hopefully without having to stage further coups. This will make life easier down the road.

— Hold your referendum in a country in which the previous government was so corrupt and widely mistrusted that voters genuinely hope that the military is a better option.

— Remember: The outcome doesn’t matter! Whatever the voters decide, you’ll still have the power since you have the guns and have shown a willingness to use them.

Photo credit: CHUMASK KANOKNAN/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @bsoloway

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