— In its first test at the polls, Thailand
’s military government won overwhelming approval Sunday of a new constitution that aims to reduce the power of political parties and extend the influence of the military.
With 94 percent of the ballots counted, voters were approving the military’s proposed constitution by a wide margin, according to preliminary returns issued by the election commission. A companion ballot measure that would give the military junta the authority to fill the Senate with its appointees was also easily winning voter approval.
The gap was wide enough that the results would not change, Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, an election official, said on television.
Meechai Ruchupan, the chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, said his panel would begin writing laws required to implement the new constitution as soon as the results are official.
“Our country has been wounded for a long time,” he said. “From now on, everyone in the country will join hands and move the country forward under the new rules that we approved.”
The constitution would be the country’s 20th in 84 years. Election officials put the turnout at 54.6 percent of eligible voters.
The junta seized power in 2014 and brought temporary peace after years of clashes between political factions. The military leaders have pledged to hold parliamentary elections next year and return power to civilian leaders no matter what the outcome of the voting on Sunday.
Human rights groups challenged the legitimacy of the referendum because of restrictions that prevented opponents of the proposed constitution from campaigning.
The junta limited public assemblies and threatened long prison terms for people who spread information that it deemed false. More than 120 people were arrested for violating campaign rules in the weeks leading up to the referendum, according to Human Rights Watch.
Thailand has long been divided between the rural poor, mainly in the northern and northeastern parts of the country, and the urban middle class, leading to years of protests and of clashes between the two factions.
Two populist prime ministers, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, were elected with the support of rural, northern voters. But Mr. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006, and Ms. Yingluck was ousted by a court ruling just before the 2014 coup.
Opponents have long accused both siblings of being corrupt. Mr. Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile, was convicted in absentia in 2008 of violating conflict-of-interest rules in a land deal. Ms. Yingluck is on trial for criminal negligence in managing government rice subsidies for poor farmers.
Adding to Thailand’s precarious political situation has been the lingering illness of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88, who has been hospitalized for more than a year. Analysts say the military sees its role as ensuring stability as the country prepares for the expected succession of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.
Thailand has experienced a repeated cycle of elections, coups and new constitutions since the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932.
The proposed constitution was designed to shift the balance of power away from major political parties and give a greater voice to medium-size parties under a new formula for awarding seats in Parliament. Experts say the system was designed so no single party would have control and so the country would be ruled by a coalition of political parties.
“The politics from now will be more compromising, more negotiating,” Yuthaporn Issarachai, the dean of political science at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said in a television interview. “It won’t be politics ruled by the majority. So we will expect to see some adjustments from the political parties. We may see the switching of sides and some negotiations.”
Approval of the second measure on the ballot gives the junta the power to appoint the 250 members of the Senate to five-year terms and would give the senators a role in selecting the prime minister, which previously was left to the House of Representatives.
“It will lead to a new political system that we’ve never seen before,” said Kamnoon Sittisamarn, a former senator and a member of the junta’s advisory National Reform Steering Assembly. “It was designed to make the country move forward for a change and not return to crisis.”
The biggest loser under the new system will most likely be Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party.
Sodsri Satayathum, a former election commissioner, questioned how effective a coalition government could be.
“In the upcoming election, there won’t be a single party that wins the majority,” she told reporters. “The government will find it hard to run the country.”
Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said the election results were contrary to the push toward democracy in Western society.
“This is a reflection of the mistrust of politicians,” she said. “It’s very deep-rooted.”
In Bangkok, voters who cast their ballots for the junta’s proposals said the two measures would help maintain stability and reduce corruption in government.
Sunee Nateethong, 50, a businesswoman in the capital, said she voted for both because she favored a continuing role by the military to reduce corruption and maintain stability.
“It is better than politicians running the country,” she said. “It’s good to have the military babysitting the government for the next five years.”
Sikarin Kanoksikarin, 44, who works for a United States
food producer, said it was better for the country to have the military restore democracy gradually, as the new constitution would.
“To change the political system takes time,” he said.
But voters who cast their ballots against the junta’s proposals said they were dissatisfied with its management of the economy and were tired of the military taking power.
“I don’t like dictatorship,” said Putiporn Sa-ngangam, 21, an accountant. “This is our country’s cycle. We have an election and a coup over and over again. I think the previous constitution was good.”
Paparat Yurod, 46, who comes from northeastern Thailand but works in a Bangkok laundry, said voters should be able to decide for themselves who runs the country, without military interference.
“We are hoping to get democracy soon,” she said. “Even if we have a bad government, we will have another election and can decide if they continue in power.”