Thai Voters Set to Approve New Military-Backed Constitution

Thai soldiers search for their names at a polling station during a constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok, Thailand. (Kerek Wongsa/Reuters)
Thai soldiers search for their names at a polling station during a constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok, Thailand. (Kerek Wongsa/Reuters)

Thai voters appear to have approved a new military-backed constitution, with the nation’s first ballot since a military coup two years ago, marked by low voter turnout.

The Election Commission said late Sunday that with 94 percent of votes counted, the draft had received 61.4 percent yes votes to 38.6 percent no votes, though official results aren’t expected for several days. Turnout was around 55 percent of the 50.2 million people eligible to vote.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who led the 2014 coup as head of the army, earlier urged Thais to brave monsoon rains to cast their vote amid concern that a ban on campaigning would lead to a low turnout. Afterward, he said the referendum process was transparent.

“This referendum was not something that the government was required to do; it was a voluntary initiative taken by this administration as part of our people-centered approach to policy,” Prayuth said in a statement. “It was conducted with a high degree of transparency and openness on part of the government.”

The junta has said the new constitution is needed if elections are to be held next year and the country is to move past a decade of political turmoil that has dampened growth in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy. Critics say the draft is an undemocratic attempt by the military to extend its control over the country and its approval could raise the risk of future clashes.

As well as current curbs on freedom of speech and assembly, the poll was held under heavy restrictions that allowed for up to 10 years in prison for those found campaigning for or against the charter. Dozens of people, almost all opponents of the draft, have been arrested on accusations of violating the law, which has given the government a monopoly on disbursing information about the charter.

“The environment in the last two to three months hasn’t felt like previous elections or referendums,” said Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former prime minister and head of the Democrat Party, who opposed the draft constitution.

“Regardless of the outcome, we expect all parties will accept the result, which will help steer our country forward,” Election Commission Chairman Supachai Somcharoen said at a media briefing after polls closed.

Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn said turnout was possibly lower than previously thought.

“The understanding of people on the constitution draft may not be much,” he told reporters. “They don’t think it directly relates to them. It seems to be a remote subject. That’s why they don’t come out to exercise their rights.”

With many voters unaware of the details of what would be the nation’s 20th constitution since 1932 and the fifth in the past decade, the referendum for many was an opportunity to express their support or opposition of the junta.

Backers of the 279-section draft, which was written by a committee appointed by the government, say it is aimed at eradicating graft and bringing stability to the country.

Politicians, academics and rights groups say otherwise. They are particularly opposed to sections that would permit a non-elected prime minister, turn the senate into an appointed body with sitting members of the military and give extra power to the courts. The draft would require future governments to adhere to the junta’s 20-year development plan.

“Far from being the key step toward the achievement of what the NCPO has termed ‘full and sustainable democracy,’ the draft charter creates undemocratic institutions, weakens the power of future elected governments, and is likely to fuel political instability,” the international rights consortium FIDH said in a report Aug. 3, referring to the junta’s official name, the National Council for Peace and Order.

“If approved, the charter will allow the military and its proxies to tighten their grip on power and cement their influence in political affairs.”

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