The Thai junta vowed Monday to hold elections as early as September 2017 after the people voted convincingly in favor of a military-written constitution in the first public opinion test for the generals who seized power two years ago.
Following the weekend referendum backing the charter, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam confirmed a timeline for the 2017 elections devised by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who led a coup in May 2014 toppling a democratically elected government.
“The government will act as quickly as we can (to organize a poll) as the prime minister does not want to prolong his time in power,” Wissanu was quoted Monday by Agence France-Presse Monday.
Chatchai Na Chiang Mai, spokesman for the Constitution Drafting Committee, was more specific.
“We think there will be an election at the earliest in September or October 2017, and a new government by December 2017,” he told Reuters.
A desire to see greater political stability drove the yes vote, analysts told the news agency, obviously referring to the more than a decade of political turmoil as well as two military takeovers and several rounds of often deadly street protests that had dampened economic growth and investment flows.
The Thai stock market touched a fresh 16-month high on Monday in an indication that the referendum result has been welcomed by Thai investors.
Ahead of the poll, the generals had banned political rallies and open forums about the charter. Those who criticized the draft could have faced charges punishable by 10 years in jail.
But Prayuth’s office said in a statement late Sunday that the referendum “was conducted with a high degree of transparency and openness on part of the government.”
The Election Commission said in unofficial results released after the vote that 61.4 percent of the country backed the charter while 38.6 percent were against it. Turnout was about 55 percent, below than the 80 percent targeted by the commission.
Thailand’s major political parties had refused to back the draft constitution prior to the vote, saying it would curtail democracy.
The draft constitution seeks an appointed Senate with seats reserved for military commanders, limits on parliamentary authority, enhanced powers for non-elected state agencies and a provision for a non-elected prime minister.
Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was swept out of power by the coup, said the referendum result was a backward step for the country.
“I accept the decision of the people,” she said in a social media post. She said she was not surprised at the result because of the ban on debate over the document.
“I am saddened by the fact that our country is going backward to an undemocratic constitution,” she said.
A 2006 coup had toppled Yingluck’s billionaire elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who has lived abroad since 2008 but still wields considerable influence in Thai politics.
The United States and the European Union expressed concern over the ban on debate over the draft charter.
Washington remains “concerned that the drafting process for the constitution was not inclusive, that open debate was not permitted in the run up to its adoption,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau. “We urge Thai authorities to proceed with next steps to return Thailand to elected civilian-led government as soon as possible.
“We strongly urge the government to lift restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, the right to peaceful assembly,” she said.
Separately, the European Union said the referendum was marred by “serious limitations to fundamental freedoms, including restrictions on debate and campaigning.”
It called on the junta to lift restrictions “to allow for an open, inclusive and accountable political process.”