Thailand canvasses support for controversial charter ahead of August vote

Thailand Election Commission chairman Supachai Somcharoen (right) casting an example ballot while standing next to commission's mascot, in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 25, 2016.
Thailand Election Commission chairman Supachai Somcharoen (right) casting an example ballot while standing next to commission's mascot, in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 25, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military government on Wednesday (May 25) kicked off a drive to convince citizens to vote in an August referendum for a draft constitution that the junta has said will pave the way for an election next year.

Opponents say the constitution will instead enshrine a political role for the military, which seized power two years ago in a coup, besides heralding weak governments and worsening a decade of bitter political division.

On Wednesday, lawmakers and members of a constitution-drafting panel tasked with explaining the document to government officials received the first 100,000 copies of the draft, from a total of a million earmarked for the public.

The government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led the junta that seized power in May 2014 after months of political unrest, says the charter will lay the foundations of a stable democracy, and is confident it will be approved.

"At the moment, there are no signs to why this referendum will not succeed," Supachai Somcharoen, chairman of the election commission, told reporters.

Starting from mid-June, about 100,000 army cadets will fan out across Thailand to discuss the charter and encourage people to vote, said election official Pravich Rattanapian.

Thailand's political divide pits the forces behind populist governments ousted in 2006 and 2014 coups against the military, bureaucrats, and the middle class that support the royalist establishment.

The junta has imposed restrictions on debating the draft, an additional gag on potential critics, who have been banned from political activity since the coup.

The charter calls for an appointed upper house with some seats reserved for the military and police. The junta says this is needed to smooth a five-year "transitional period" before full civilian rule is restored.

However, the referendum, and a subsequent election, will do little to ease foreign investors' concerns, said an executive of credit rating firm Moody's, since the constitution is unlikely to resolve the issues polarising Thailand.

"Political uncertainty has weighed on foreign direct investment and economic performance," said Christian de Guzman, a vice president of Moody's, whose "moderate" assessment of Thai domestic political risk ranks it the highest in south-east Asia.

Wednesday's handouts were accompanied by instructions on tackling questions on the referendum, said election official Tanith Sriprateth, adding that the remaining 900,000 copies would be mailed to government offices and schools.