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Politics

Turnout is a wild card in Thailand's vote on a new constitution

A staff member casts a vote in a practice for Thailand's upcoming constitutional referendum in Bangkok. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

BANGKOK Recent general elections prove that Thais have not lost their appetite for democracy despite two coups in a decade.

Turnouts have grown steadily since the 1980s, peaking at 78.5% in 2007, when the last junta handed back power. A negative blip was the referendum earlier that year on a new constitution, with only 57.61% participation -- the poorest turnout alongside nine general elections since 1986. So there was considerable surprise in March when Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, one of five election commissioners, predicted over 80% voting in the referendum for another draft constitution on Aug. 7. If Somchai is right, it will be the best showing yet.

The draft charter is Thailand's 20th since the end of "absolute" monarchy in 1932, but it is only the second time one is being presented for referendum. The 18 before were all handed down by military juntas or legislative assemblies.

The 2007 referendum saw 58% in favor. Opposition was strongest in the north and northeast, areas supportive of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

If opponents of the charter rally, it may prove a key factor in boosting turnout. Thaksin's parties have won every election since 2001, leading many Thais to realize that their votes actually do count.

Where do they stand now? Nobody knows. Thai pollsters have proved almost as misleading as those in the U.K., who first got a general election wrong in 2015, then a referendum in 2016. One recent poll in Bangkok did, however, record that 52% of respondents felt the referendum would be "helpful in enabling the country to move forward."

Another poll found 63% wanting Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who seized power in May 2014, to stay if the charter is rejected. When British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned after losing the vote on U.K. membership of the European Union, a Thai reporter asked Prayuth what he would do under similar circumstances. "It's a different story," Prayuth said. "I won't quit -- I set my own rules."

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