By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Pairat Temphairojana
BANGKOK/KHON KAEN, Thailand (Reuters) – Preliminary results of a referendum on Sunday showed Thailand has voted to accept a junta-backed constitution that would pave the way for an election next year but require future elected governments to rule on the military’s terms.
Results so far show the junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has passed its first major popularity test since seizing power in a 2014 coup.
With 94% of the vote counted, early results from the Election Commission showed 61.4% of the country had voted for the charter, while 37.9% rejected it. Full results are due on Wednesday.
“The gap is wide enough not to change the result,” Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, chairman of the commission, told reporters after 90% of the vote count had been completed.
The junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), banned debate about the constitution and campaigning ahead of the vote. The authorities have detained and charged dozens of people who have spoken against it, including politicians and student activists.
The junta says the constitution is designed to heal more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand that has dented growth and left scores dead in civil unrest. But critics, among them major political parties, say it aims to enshrine the military’s political role for years to come.
At the headquarters of the anti-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) group, some people wept as the result became clear. Jatuporn Prompan, the UDD chairman, said the referendum should not have been held under such conditions.
“What will we do next? Tell Prayuth that although it seems he is winning, this is not a victory he can be proud of because his opponents have not been able to fight at their best due to threats and harassment,” he said.
Around 200,000 police were deployed for the referendum. Voting went smoothly, the election commission chairman said. Another voting official said there were 21 cases of voters tearing ballot papers, some as a deliberate protest and others accidental.
The vote comes amidst concern about the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88. The military has for decades invoked its duty as defender of the deeply revered monarch to justify its interventions in politics.
DECADE OF TURMOIL
Critics also say the charter is the military’s attempt to complete their failure to banish former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his brand of populism from Thai politics after the coup that removed him in 2006.
Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile but retains a strong influence, particularly with his rural support base in the north. His sister Yingluck swept to power with an electoral landslide in 2011, and her government was ousted by Prayuth in the 2014 coup.
Yingluck, who was banned from politics for five years in January 2015 after a military-appointed legislature found her guilty of mismanaging a rice scheme, also voted on Sunday.
“I’m happy that I could still exercise my rights as a (Thai) person,” Yingluck told reporters after she voted.
Thaksin called the charter a “folly”, saying it would perpetuate the junta’s power and make it impossible to govern Thailand.
Reuters interviews with senior officers showed the military’s ambition is to make future coups unnecessary through the new charter by weakening political parties and ensuring the military a role in overseeing the country’s economic and political development.
Under the constitution, which would be Thailand’s 20th since the military abolished an absolute monarchy in 1932, a junta-appointed Senate with seats reserved for military commanders would check the powers of elected lawmakers.
The northeast, Thaksin’s stronghold, bucked the trend and voted against the draft.
Decha Shangkamanee, a day labourer in Khon Kaen, said he had voted against the charter because he disliked the junta, but did not expect the referendum to make much difference.
“I know that nothing really changes today with the way the country is ruled,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Orathai Sriring, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Simon Webb; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Simon Webb; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Greg Mahlich)