All eyes are on the prospect of Thailand holding elections late next year now that the Election Commission (EC) has certified results of a referendum that backed a controversial constitution proposed by the Thai junta.
After the EC confirmed Wednesday that 61 percent had voted over the weekend in favor of Thailand’s 20th constitution in 84 years, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha announced on national television that the new charter would be adopted within three months, clearing the way for possible elections in 2017.
“Please, everyone, keep a positive atmosphere and prepare for the elections to come tentatively next year,” Prayuth, an army general who led a coup that toppled a civilian-led government in May 2014, told the nation.
A day earlier, Meechai Ritchuphand, the chairman of the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee, said he expected elections to take place in late 2017 at the earliest.
But before Thailand can adopt a new charter, the CDC needs to incorporate a clause that would allow 250 senators appointed by the junta to join 500 elected MPs in picking a non-elected person as prime minister following the next elections, he said.
The clause has been widely criticized as changing electoral rules in a way that would water down the power of elected officials and allow the military to influence the electoral process.
“After all the process is done, the new charter will be sent to the prime minister who will seek royal endorsement. And when all steps are done, elections may be held in October or November ,” Meechai said.
Fifty-nine percent percent of eligible voters turned out for Sunday’s polls, EC Chairman Somchai Srisuthiyakorn said Wednesday.
On the second question, voters were asked whether they agreed with the controversial clause to allow the junta to appoint 250 members – 58 percent voted for it, compared with nearly 42 percent who opposed it, according to the EC’s final results.
In the months leading up to Sunday’s vote, the junta had banned public criticism of the draft charter or negative campaigning against it.
Rungwrawee Chalermsripinyorat, an independent political analyst based in Thailand’s Deep South, said the referendum was not a genuine democratic exercise because of how tightly it was controlled, and that the new charter would not restore full democracy to Thailand.
“Some of the yes camp wanted to see elections and the return to ‘normalcy,’ but at the price of the advance of democracy,” she told BenarNews.
“The approval of the referendum will result in increased roles for military and autocrats, who are not elected, in the political arena – especially when it comes to picking premier,” she added.
Thailand’s major political parties had refused to support the draft charter.
Jatuporn Prompan, chairman of the grassroots movement United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) – which aligned with the opposition Pheu Thai party – posted a message on Facebook this week, in which he called on politicians to boycott a non-elected person being selected as prime minister under the future format.
“[An] outsider must not set foot in Government House,” he said.
Prof. Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, a former member of the National Reform Council, told BenarNews that the contentious clause in the draft charter would lead the country down the road to “crisis,” although supporters of the constitution have argued that it would bring about stability and order after a decade of turmoil in Thai politics.
“The outsider premier will [lead] a minority government and this will lead to crisis. A minority government lacks stability. How can it pass budgets, how can it pass laws?” Sombat told BenarNews in a telephone interview.
The outcome of the referendum and the way that the run-up to it was controlled has drawn scrutiny from abroad, including from one of Thai’s main allies, the United States.
On Monday, the U.S. State Department voiced concern that “the drafting process for the constitution was not inclusive, that open debate was not permitted in the run-up to its adoption.”
“Once the results are final … we urge Thai authorities to proceed with next steps to return Thailand to elected, civilian-led government as soon as possible,” State Department spokesman Elizabeth Trudeau told a press briefing in Washington.
“As part of the process to return Thailand to democracy, we strongly urge the government to lift restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, the right to peaceful assembly, so the Thai people can engage in an open, unimpeded dialogue about the country’s political future,” she added.
On Wednesday, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch criticized the referendum process and the implications of the draft charter’s passage at the polls.
“The Thai junta’s campaign of repression against opponents of the proposed constitution ensured that the referendum wouldn’t be fair,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Instead of the long-promised return to democratic civilian rule, the new constitution facilitates unaccountable military power and a deepening dictatorship.”
“The new constitution will entrench the abusive and unaccountable military rule that Thailand has endured since the May 2014 coup,” he added. “The UN and Thailand’s friends need to step up their calls for an end to human rights abuses and for genuine democratic reforms.”