Thais Affirm Military-Backed Charter in Step Toward Election

Thai Constitutional Referendum

Prayuth Chan-Ocha votes in Bangkok on Aug. 7.

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg
  • Vote was first major test of junta’s popularity after coup
  • Critics warn new charter will enshrine military control

Thai voters approved a new military-backed constitution in the first ballot since a coup two years ago, putting the nation on a path toward an election even as a decade-long political divide persists.

QuickTake Thailand’s Troubled Democracy

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. Officials said turnout was around 55 percent 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." 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 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."

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The poll was held under restrictions that allowed for as long as 10 years in prison for those found campaigning before the charter vote. Dozens of people, almost all opponents of the draft, were arrested on accusations of violating the law, which gave 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.

Yingluck Shinawatra, the former prime minister whose government was ousted in the 2014 coup, said Monday that she was saddened but not surprised by the result. "Any referendum which allows only single-sided communication does not comply with international standards," she said.

Investors will welcome the short-term stability the result will bring, said Wu Mingze, a foreign-exchange trader in Singapore at INTL FCStone Inc., a global payments-service provider. The referendum “settles political uncertainty but it’s too soon to tell if this is a genuine move by the junta to release power.”

Baht Rises

The baht rose from a three-week low Monday, strengthening 0.4 percent against the dollar as of 1:40 p.m. local time. The SET Index of stocks rose 1.2 percent to the highest level in more than three months.

Election Commission Chairman Supachai Somcharoen said he expected all parties to accept the result, which he said would "help steer our country forward.” Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn said some Thais may not have voted because they did not understand what the charter 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.

Rural Voters

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. His sister Yingluck’s government was removed in the 2014 coup.

Voting patterns in Sunday’s referendum show political divisions may be as wide as ever. In Thailand’s south, where voters have traditionally backed the establishment Democrat Party, almost 77 percent voted yes. In the poorer rice-growing regions of the northeast, which benefited from agricultural subsidy policies under Thaksin-linked governments, less than 49 percent of voters supported the charter.

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.

Appointed Body

Politicians, academics and rights groups say otherwise. They oppose 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 last week, referring to the junta’s official name, the National Council for Peace and Order.

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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