PM Prayut: Thailand to hold elections in 2017

prayutBANGKOK: Thailand will hold a general election in 2017, the country’s junta chief confirmed Tuesday, 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 Prayut to hold elections as swiftly as possible and lift curbs on civil liberties imposed since his takeover.

Previous election date promises by Prayut have 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 released by the Election Commission on Sunday showed 61 percent of the country backed the document, with 39 percent voting “no”.

But turnout, currently estimated at 55 percent, was subdued. Full official figures will be released on Wednesday.

Thailand has been bitterly divided ever since a 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister.

Years of competing protests and instability followed. In 2014 the army seized power once more, toppling Thaksin’s sister Yingluck.

The country’s populous and poor north and northeast, a Shinawatra stronghold, was one of the few regions to vote against the charter.

Addressing those voters, 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 have 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 gathering ahead of the 2017 elections.