Thailand to hold elections in 2017, junta chief confirms

BANGKOK • Thailand will hold a general election in 2017, the country's junta chief confirmed yesterday, his first comments since voters backed a new military-crafted Constitution in a referendum.

Sunday's vote in support of the Charter was the first test of public opinion since the 2014 coup, although campaigning was curbed and open debate banned ahead of the polls.

"The election will be held late 2017 as planned," Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who as army chief seized power two years ago, told reporters.

Since the vote, key allies the European Union and the United States have called on Mr Prayut to hold elections as swiftly as possible and lift curbs on civil liberties imposed since his takeover.

Previous election date promises by Mr Prayut had slipped.

The military says the new Constitution will purge Thailand of corrupt civilian politicians and restore stability after nearly a decade of political turmoil, including two coups.

But critics say the Charter will augment military power and straitjacket elected officials.

Under the new Charter the Upper House will be entirely appointed, including six seats reserved for the military, while a proportional voting system will likely reduce the influence of major parties.

The Senate will also have a voice in picking a non-elected prime minister if the Lower House is deadlocked, while it will be easier to impeach a civilian leader.

Unofficial results from the Election Commission show 61 per cent of Thais back the document, with 39 per cent against. Turnout was estimated at 55 per cent. Full official figures will be released today.

Thailand has been bitterly divided since a 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister. Years of competing protests and instability followed. His sister Yingluck was later elected premier, but was toppled in 2104, when the army seized power once more.

The country's populous and poor north and north-east, a Shinawatra stronghold, was one of the few regions to vote against the Charter.

Addressing those voters, Mr Prayut said: "I can see you suffering. I will take care of you. But I have to take care of other regions too."

The Shinawatra clan had won all general elections since 2001, harvesting votes by promising greater wealth and opportunity to the nation's rural poor.

But the family is loathed by an arch-royalist Bangkok elite which is backed by the military, and by southern voters who accuse the clan of corruption and populism.

It is not yet known whether Thailand's generals will lift curbs on political gatherings ahead of the 2017 elections.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'Thailand to hold elections in 2017, junta chief confirms'. Print Edition | Subscribe