Thai PM Prayut on referendum: Let’s make history

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha casts his ballot during a referendum for the new constitution at a polling station in Bangkok on Aug 7 2016.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha casts his ballot during a referendum for the new constitution at a polling station in Bangkok on Aug 7 2016. PHOTO: EPA

BANGKOK - Heavy overnight rain in Bangkok failed to keep voters away as Thailand held a referendum on a draft Constitution on Sunday (Aug 7), some two years after a military coup.

Coup-maker and prime minster Prayut Chan-o-cha, who cast his vote sometime after 9am in the capital, Bangkok, urged the 50.6 million strong electorate to exercise its right.

“Don’t be afraid of the rain. The more it rains, the more people should come,” he told reporters at his polling station in central Bangkok. “This is about the future of Thailand…let’s create a landslide (turnout) and make history.”

Singing a similar tune was former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was ousted by a Constitutional Court ruling in 2014 shortly before the military coup. She had declared before the referendum that she would reject the draft Charter.

“If you stay home it doesn't mean that you (are taking part in democracy)… So please come and go to vote,” she told reporters shortly after casting her vote near her home in northern Bangkok.

Several bombs reportedly went off simultaneously on Saturday night in the restive southern border provinces, where militants are fighting a separatist insurgency. 

But voting on Sunday proceeded peacefully, in stark contrast to chaotic scenes two years ago when street protesters allied with Thailand’s royalist elites sabotaged an election that was poised to be dominated by the Ms Yingluck’s incumbent Puea Thai party.

The paralysed caretaker government was ousted by a coup in May that year, and the then Constitution suspended.

The military government now operates under an interim Charter which gives it absolute powers.

According to online newspaper Khaosod English, two elderly people were arrested in Bangkok and Pathum Thani province for tearing up their ballot papers, which police attributed to their misunderstanding about the voting processs.

Authors of the draft Constitution promise it will clamp down on corruption and weed out political excesses, but its critics decry as a way to cement military power without the need for future coups.

The 105-page document gives the ruling junta the power to pick almost all 250 senators during the transitory five-year period. Six seats in the Upper House will be reserved for senior security officials.

While the future prime minister need not come from an election, the future elected government will have to abide by a “national strategy plan”, or risk being impeached.

A second question on the ballot paper will ask the voter if he agrees with having senators join the elected House of Representatives in choosing a prime minister – in effect opening the possibility for the military to install a non-elected premier of its choice.

The draft Charter is designed to be difficult to amend once it is enacted.

If it passes this referendum, general elections will be held next year (2017). Gen Prayut has insisted the election will go head next year (2017) no matter what happens in the referendum, though he has not stated how it will be done.

Given the draft Charter’s complexity, analysts expect few voters to have read it in entirety, and think people are more likely to use the referendum to voice their approval or rejection of military rule.

One voter, Mr Nipon Niranon, 79, told The Straits Times he was looking forward to a new government, which can only happen if Thailand enacts a Constitution.

“We must have a Constitution. We can change it in parliament later,” he said.

Voting is due to end at 4pm (5pm Singapore time), and preliminary results are expected about four hours later (9pm Singapore time).