BANGKOK -- The majority of voters in Thailand's referendum on Sunday have endorsed a draft constitution that the military-backed government claimed would put the country on a path back to democracy and full election in 2017 -- but one still firmly guided by the military.
The national election commission announced on Sunday evening that with about 90% of ballots counted, the draft constitution had been accepted by over 61% of those who voted. Full official results are due on Wednesday.
Sunday's vote turnout fell well short of the election commission's 80% target. Even before its Sunday evening announcement, the national election commission told reporters that the final voter tally would not exceed 55%.
Despite a soulful apology for his personal shortcomings on Friday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha failed to boost turnout to the 80% once hoped for.
On Sunday, Prayuth seemed more frustrated with the result than repentant. "It's disappointing that there have been some inappropriate intervention by foreign elements during these delicate times of our political transition," he said. He described the referendum as "our own initiative", and said the country would decide its future "in a noble manner".
The new constitution will cement the military's hold on politics. The military will control all appointments to the 250-member senate, the upper house of the national assembly, for five years, and six seats in it are reserved for the most senior members of the national security establishment. Moreover, prime ministers can be chosen from outside the elected lower house.
After the referendum result became clear, Prayuth said: "The government will pay heed to the will of the people today, and will do everything possible to address their concerns while providing a sustainable solution to our country's political problems."
The result could suggest that many voters have prioritized political stability following prolonged turmoil that has harmed the economy. The draft was accepted by the majority of voters in most regions, including the North, the stronghold of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister.
In Bangkok, yes voters topped no voters. But not all yes voters accepted the military's strengthened hand. Although some 61% endorsed the constitution, only 58% also agreed that the prime minister should be jointly chosen by the unelected senate and elected lower house members.
"The power to select prime ministers should belong to people elected by the people," said a 28-year-old self-employed woman who voted against the second question. "There's no way we can tell if a senator is biased or not."
Meanwhile, a 41-year-old female office worker said the coup in 2014 had brought more "order and discipline" to the country. "I like how the military government is decisive and putting things in order," she said after casting her votes in favor. "Looking back, the politicians just did whatever was in their own best interests." She also praised the womb-to-tomb social provisions in the new charter.
The new constitution will not come into force until at least 120 days after it receives King Bhumibol Adulyadej's assent -- a constitutional formality. The first general election under its auspices is not expected before the second half of 2017.
"Whether this draft passes or fails, our country still has a lot to do," Prayuth said in his television speech on Friday. Economic growth has slowed to around 3% yearly from as high as 10% in years past, and there remain numerous disparities, including in income, child health, and education.
"We must develop all these areas and push for economic growth," he said.