Thai Election Panel Expects 80% Turnout for Referendum

By Aukkarapon Niyomyat & Panarat Thepgumpanat 29 March 2016

BANGKOK — Thailand’s election commission said on Monday it expected 80 percent of eligible voters to turn out for an Aug. 7 referendum on a controversial constitution that critics have vowed to boycott.

The referendum, pushed back from July, will be Thailand’s first return to the ballot-box since junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a May 2014 coup, following months of political unrest.

Critics of the draft charter, who include the main political parties, say it will enshrine the military’s influence and is unlikely to resolve bitter political disputes.

“Around 51 million people have the right to vote. The turnout is expected to be 80 percent,” Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, a member of the Election Commission, told Reuters.

Somchai said around 57 percent of eligible voters turned out the last time Thailand voted on a new constitution in August 2007, following a 2006 coup that ousted populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

But he gave no reason for the expected higher turnout.

Thailand has been politically fractured for more than a decade, split roughly along north-south lines between supporters of the government ousted in the 2014 coup and the military-backed royalist elite.

Constitution rewrites have done little to end the country’s decades-long cycle of coups. The current draft constitution, if approved, would be the 20th drafted since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Critics say they will boycott the August vote.

“We will tell people that this constitution draft is bad,” said Samart Kaewmechai, a member of the Puea Thai Party that swept to victory in July 2011, only to be toppled in the May 2014 coup.

“Rejecting a constitution is a right and is not against the law,” he told Reuters.

Still, preparations have begun for the August referendum.

“We will use Army Reserve Force students as a tool to create understanding about the contents of the draft constitution and distribute it all over the country,” said Somchai.

“We have told them to do this in a neutral manner.”

The Election Commission has said it will not try to influence opinion on the constitution, and would set up debates between groups in favor and those against.