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Thais Approve Military-Backed Constitution   

  • Ron Corben

Thailand Election Commission's chairman Supachai Somcharoen (C) gestures during a news conference at the Election Commission Office in Bangkok, Aug. 7, 2016.

Thailand Election Commission's chairman Supachai Somcharoen (C) gestures during a news conference at the Election Commission Office in Bangkok, Aug. 7, 2016.

Thais voted Sunday to approve a junta-backed constitution that the country's military leaders say opens the way to new elections but critics see as legitimizing the military’s role in government for years to come.

Final results will not be known for several days, but preliminary results Sunday showed 62 percent of voters approving the constitution.

Voters were asked to answer two questions — with a yes or no — to support the draft charter and also allow the election of a new prime minister by a joint sitting of a 250-member appointed Senate with the 500 elected members of the House of Representatives.

Critics say a joint sitting to elect a new leader opens the way for a non-elected prime minister in a future government.

The government tightly controlled debate ahead of the vote leading to dozens of arrests of campaigners and students, backed by tough laws and fines and jail terms of up to 10 years.

Amnesty International said the vote had taken place against a backdrop of “pervasive human rights violations,” creating “a chilling climate.”

Voters criticized the absence of information and discussion on the charter leading to a high percentage of ‘undecided’ voters in pre-referendum polls.

The office of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a statement late Sunday the referendum "was conducted with a high degree of transparency and openness on part of the government."

At a polling station in Bangkok, Yosporn Limpaphan said he supported the charter because he wants to see the country move ahead.

“I came here today to cast my vote to accept the draft constitution so the country would not go back to the same situation like in the past. If the draft falls through, I would ask the Prime Minister [Prayut Chan-o-cha] to remain in power in order to move the country forward,” he said.

WATCH: Other reactions from voters

Political turbulence

If passed, the constitution would be Thailand’s 20th since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 and comes after a decade of political turbulence.

The last anti-government protests, against the elected government of then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2013, led to the military coup in May 2014 headed by the army chief and now Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, also head of the junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

Since coming to power, the NCPO has kept a tight rein over control, leading to criticisms over its human rights record and restrictions on political freedoms.

Noi, a government official who asked not to disclose her full name, said she wanted to see Prayut stay in government until the elections expected in 2017.

“I like Prayut Chan-o-cha so I agree with him. The country needs Prayut for a while. After he has done everything perfectly, we can have the election,” she said.

The government tightly controlled debate ahead of the vote leading to dozens of arrests of campaigners and students, backed by tough laws and fines and jail terms of up to 10 years.

Targeting corruption

In the northern city of Chiang Mai, Tawan Laopeth expressed hopes the new constitution would target issues such as corruption.

“Everybody wants to see Thailand developing in every direction with the economy, socially and politically. We don't want to see the country move backward to the era of darkness with people fighting each other and corruption,” Tawan said.

Other voters, such as well-known actor Willy Macintosh, said there are concerns over the political outlook.

“Nowadays we are losing our land of smiles because there’s this problem of unsolvable problems of corruption and a lot of things and people are losing faith in the system,” Macintosh said.

Supporters of deposed prime minister Yingluck, led by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) - also known as the ‘red shirts” - were among those campaigning for a “no” vote.

Major political parties, including Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party and the leader of the Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjijiva, also backed a "no" vote at the polls.

Under the new charter, the major parties would have a diminished role, opening the way for smaller, weaker coalition governments.

An election commission official holds a ballot paper from a ballot box while counting votes during a constitutional referendum vote at a polling station in Bangkok, Aug. 7, 2016.

An election commission official holds a ballot paper from a ballot box while counting votes during a constitutional referendum vote at a polling station in Bangkok, Aug. 7, 2016.

UDD senior leader Tida Thavornseth said voter turnout appeared will below the 80 percent hoped by electoral authorities with security officials urging people to back the charter.

“In many [voting] stations just a few people came to vote, very few. But in some places a large number of soldiers came to vote. But normal people very few. So I’m afraid that the number of people that come to the vote today maybe 50 percent – I don’t know – average 50 percent,” Tida said.

But Titpol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist in the northwestern provincial university in Ubon Ratchathani, said some Red Shirt supporters would vote ‘yes’ frustrated by the NCPO remaining in power and looking to fresh elections.

“There’s a strong opportunity for the referendum to pass because many of the Red Shirts I have spoken to feel - some of them will vote ‘yes’,” he said.

“But I wouldn’t say ‘yes’ is a kind of endorsement of the NCPO but a ‘yes’ from the Red Shirts is just a desperation to go back to democracy because the government and NCPO has been trying to convince if you vote ‘yes’ then we’re heading back to democracy,” Titpol said.

The military has said if the latest charter was rejected it would move to draft a fresh charter, without debate, and press on with new elections next year.

Political scientists say the military’s control over an appointed Senate and weaker governing parliament could lead to the military extending its influence for at least five years under transitional clauses.

Colin Lovett contributed from Bangkok and Steve Sandford contributed from Chiang Mai.

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