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Thais Approve New Army-Drafted Charter by Small Margin

Reuters
Sunday, 19 Aug 2007 | 7:42 PM ET

Thailand's voters approved a new army-drafted constitution on Sunday, paving the way to elections in December, but a large number of "No" votes suggested ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra remains a political force.

A tally, with 95% of the votes counted in Thailand's first referendum, showed 58.24% accepting the charter, designed to prevent a repeat of Thaksin's powerful single-party style of government.

However, 41.76% rejected it, sending a signal to the generals who removed the telecoms billionaire in a coup last September that they will struggle to control the make-up of the next administration.

The election commission Web site, www.ect.go.th/index.html, said turnout was 56.63% of a 45 million electorate.

Having pushed for a "Yes" vote, the army-appointed post-coup government had been hoping for at least a 60% turn-out for what will be Thailand's 18th constitution in 75 years of on-off democracy.

After early exit polls indicated overall approval of the charter -- a result that was never really in question -- Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said elections would "definitely be held at the end of the year".

Dec. 16 or Dec. 23 are the most likely election dates.

Thaksin, 58, has been in exile in Britain since the coup and spent the afternoon watching his newly acquired soccer club, Manchester City, beat Manchester United 1-0 in a match that will have generated as much interest in Thailand as the referendum.

End To Turmoil

Many Thais, especially those in Bangkok, appeared motivated to vote by a desire to see an end to the turmoil since Thaksin's family sold control of the telecoms empire he founded to Singapore for a tax-free $1.9 billion in January 2006.

Analysts said investors would also be relieved there had been no major upset, although the smaller-than-expected margin of victory for the "Yes" camp suggested the election would be closely fought, messy -- and dirty.

"This is telling the junta that they are going to have trouble at an election and that could mean all kinds of attempts to influence the result -- and that's worrying," Bangkok-based political analyst Chris Baker said.

Even though Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party has been disbanded and 111 members barred from politics, its leaders hope the mass rural support that twice swept it to power will rally to a new party under a new flag.

Analysts say the charter is designed to restore rule by the elites challenged by Thaksin, son of an ethnic Chinese silk merchant, and rekindle the "managed democracy" of the 1980s under ex-army chief Prem Tinsulanonda -- now the King's top adviser and seen by the Thaksin camp as the coup mastermind.

"The most important thing now is for Thais to be reconciled," Prem said after voting. "I hope the referendum will end misunderstanding among Thais, leading them to a clean and fair election and narrowing their different opinions."

Human rights groups have criticized the poll as a sham, given that nearly half of Thailand's 76 provinces remain under martial law and that a "No" vote would have allowed the army to impose any one of the previous 17 constitutions. A full official result is expected on Monday.

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