Thai voters approve new charter by decisive margin

A Thai woman casts her ballot during a constitutional referendum vote at southern province of PattaniVoters across Thailand approved the long-awaited new draft constitution on Sunday by a decisive 61 percent of the vote in a national referendum that demonstrated electoral democracy is still alive and well in the Kingdom and that paved the way for elections for a new government in 2017.

Preliminary results indicated that 61.4 percent of voters favored the charter while 38.6 percent decided against it, with turnout of 55 percent or 27.6 million voters. Those who participated in the referendum also voted yes on the ‘extra question’ of whether the Senate should have a role in choosing the Prime Minister, with 58.1 percent approving of the new system and 41.9 percent opposed.

Voters in every region of the country chose to pass the new charter by strong margins except for the northeast, the political stronghold of the previous government, where the public narrowly voted against it by 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent. Leaders of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), or the “Red Shirts” group, which supports the previous government and had urged its followers to vote against the charter, said they accepted the result. The poll was carried out peacefully with no reports of violence or protests during or after the voting.

“It is a show of force by the people to determine the country’s future,” Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said upon learning the results.

Passing a new constitution was a key milestone in the Prime Minister’s roadmap to build a sustainable democracy. Prime Minister Prayut has vowed to hold elections for a new government in 2017, although a firm date has yet to be set. The legislature must now pass organic laws to facilitate the polls.

The business community, both domestic and foreign, was overwhelmingly supportive of the result.

“The decision to accept the draft will be a boon for investors,” said Stanley Kang, chairman of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand. “Seeing Thailand restore its democratic process will improve the country’s image in the eyes of foreign investors, and will create more business opportunities.”

Chen Namchaisiri, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries said, “Thailand will move forward as a result of the vote. Investor confidence in the Thai economy will grow. The yes vote should be a good sign for Thailand.”

Several analysts and media interpreted the yes vote as the public wanting progress and supporting tougher measures against corruption by elected officials and bureaucrats. The new charter creates more mechanisms to keep elected officials honest and in check, but human rights groups and several politicians voiced opposition to the draft, saying that it reduces the people’s voices in the governing process.

John Marrett, Research Analyst, Asia at the Economist Intelligence Unit said “the “yes” vote [is] an expression of Thai citizens’ desire for political and economic stability.”

The Bangkok Post urged the Prime Minister to loosen restrictions on freedom of expression and political gatherings so that more people can participate in shaping the transition process to the country’s new democratic future. “All Thais are entitled to a voice in coming developments,” the Post said in an editorial, noting that the country now has a framework on which to build a new democracy. “But much remains to be done.”

While the Prime Minister’s relationship with some media and political activists has at times been tense because of their role as watchdogs, he has found more support in the business community and the public at large as they longed for an end to the political conflicts, poor governance and uncertainties of the past decade.

“The government is very conscious of trying to make it easier to do business here given the increasingly competitive environment in the region for foreign direct investment,” said Darren Buckley, country head of Citibank for Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, and President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand, in the Nikkei Asian Review magazine.

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