Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gestures in a traditional greeting at a polling station during a constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok, Thailand August 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thai prime minister, votes in Bangkok on Sunday © Reuters

Thais have backed a new constitution in a tightly controlled referendum that will entrench the ruling military’s powers ahead of elections expected next year in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.

Official results showed a clear majority for the draft charter in a ballot on Sunday, although critics dismissed the poll as a sham unlikely to resolve the country’s long-running and sporadically deadly political conflict.

The charter’s supporters say the changes drawn up by the junta’s handpicked drafters are needed to stifle corrupt politicians and revive Thailand’s appeal as a regional centre for business and diplomacy. But opponents of the new constitution say voters were coerced into backing a document that will deepen the influence of the generals, conservative bureaucrats and judges over elected politicians.

The two-year-old junta in Bangkok had cracked down on opposition to the charter before the referendum and hinted that a No vote could further delay a return to civilian rule.

“This constitution doesn’t come from the people,” said a No voter in Bangkok called Prakob, who added that it would be “dangerous” to give his full name. “This government is not my government.”

“I hope that in the future there will be real democracy,” said Ponpun Vorasiha, an academic who voted Yes. “Nowadays money can buy everything in Thailand [in] politics.”

About 62 per cent of voters had endorsed the charter with four-fifths of all ballots counted, according to results published on Sunday evening by the country’s election commission. But turnout appeared to be well short of the 80 per cent predicted by election officials. No serious disruption was reported during the day, for which 200,000 police were deployed at almost 100,000 polling stations around the country.

Dozens of anti-charter activists were detained, in the run-up to the referendum, some over leaflet and social media campaigns.

The constitution will be Thailand’s 20th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Many previous charters have been ripped up by a military that has loomed large and launched 12 successful coups, most recently in May 2014.

The generals had pushed hard in the past few weeks for a high referendum turnout, despatching cadets to communities to urge residents to go to the polls. The junta insisted it did not order people to support the constitution, although senior officers including General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader turned premier, made it clear they favoured a Yes vote. The prime minister insisted just before polling day that elections would take place next year whatever the referendum result, although some earlier statements by officials had suggested otherwise.

Leading figures from both main political parties have strongly criticised the referendum proposals, which give the junta powers to appoint senators and award some seats directly to army officers.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former prime minister and one-time owner of Manchester City football club, last week branded the new constitution a “folly” that would enshrine the “absolute power of the present coup makers”.

Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra looks from behind a booth as she votes during the referendum on a draft constitution at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, August 7, 2016. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
Yingluck Shinawatra, deposed prime minister and sister of self-exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, casts her vote © Reuters

Thailand has been weakened economically and politically by the long-running battle between the military-aligned establishment and forces loyal to Mr Thaksin, a billionaire plutocrat who fled Thailand over a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.

Parties led by or loyal to Mr Thaksin have won every election since 2001 but he and four other allied prime ministers have been ousted either by court orders or military putsches.

The power struggle is a sign of wider social changes convulsing Thailand after a long export-led manufacturing boom in the late-20th and early-21st century propelled it into the ranks of middle-income countries.

Mr Thaksin rose to office thanks in large part to millions of long-ignored rural voters attracted by policies such as rice subsidies, microcredit and low-cost healthcare.

Thailand’s political uncertainty has been heightened by the prospect of succession to the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-ruling monarch. The king has been head of state for all but 14 of the 84 years since the end of absolute monarchy and is the source of much of the military’s continued authority.

Get alerts on Thailand when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article