Thai voters approved a new military-backed constitution in the first ballot since a coup two years ago, putting the nation on a path towards an election even as a decade-long political divide persists.
The Election Commission said today that with 94 per cent of votes counted, the draft had received 61.4 per cent yes votes to 38.6 per cent no votes, though official results aren't expected for several days. Officials said turnout was around 55 per cent of the 50.2 million people eligible to vote, around the same as past such ballots.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who led the 2014 coup as head of the army, cheered the result while lashing out at "inappropriate intervention by foreign elements" in the country's internal politics. The junta leader has come under criticism from rights groups and some foreign governments for a crackdown on freedom of speech and assembly that was stepped up ahead of the vote.
"This process has come about based on our own initiative, requiring great toil over many years to reach this pinnacle, where we could decide by ourselves, the future of Thailand in a noble manner," Prayuth said in a statement distributed by his office. "It's disappointing, however, that there have been some inappropriate intervention by foreign elements during these delicate times of our political transition."
The passage of the charter means the junta is more likely to stick to its current time line of holding elections late next year. But the new document, which officials have said is necessary to tackle graft in the political sphere, will also boost the military's influence over any future elected governments.
Critics warn the constitution - like past military-backed charters - will ultimately mean more political turmoil for Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. Thailand has seen 12 military coups since the end of absolute rule by kings in 1932. This will be the nation's 20th constitution in that time and the fifth in a decade.
"This is a grand day for the resurrection of enshrined military power," said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. "They are using the very democratic process to increase authoritarianism across the country. It represents the nadir or abyss for Thai democracy."
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.
They are using the very democratic process to increase authoritarianism across the country
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"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 some Thais may not have voted because they did not understand what the draft constitution was about.
"They don't think it directly relates to them," he told reporters. "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, the referendum for many was an opportunity to express their support or opposition to the junta.
The new charter will limit the power of politicians and possibly prevent the resurgence of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former populist prime minister whose allies have won every national election since 2001. Thaksin's ouster in a 2006 coup set off a cycle of military interventions, controversial court rulings and protests and counter protests that have dogged every government since. The government of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed in the 2014 coup.
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."