Election panel expects 80% turnout for referendum

Election panel expects 80% turnout for referendum

The Election Commission said on Monday it expected 80% 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 the country's first return to the ballot box since the May 22, 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%," Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, a member of the Election Commission, told Reuters.

Mr Somchai said around 57% 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.

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 Pheu 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 Mr Somchai.

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

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

Pravich Rattanapian, another EC commissioner, said on Monday the EC was building networks with the 47 campuses of Rajmangala University of Technology and Rajabhat University

"Students will be asked to dissemminate the content of the draft charter and 7,000 democracy promotion centres have been set up in all tambons," he said.

After the draft is approved by the cabinet and sent to the EC, it will be printed and sent to all villages four months before the referendum, he said.

Instead of hosting a live debate, the EC would register the supporters and critics of the draft constitution. Each group would then express its opinions on the 10 points predetermined by the EC in pre-recorded video clips, to be broadcast in different forms of media.

"We'd like to invite leaders of each group such as Jatuporn Prompan [chairman of the the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship] and leaders of the PDRC [People's Democratic Reform Committee]," Mr Pravich said. 

Apart from the content the draft charter, the referendum has been criticised for a lack of choice — it remains unknown what would happen if voters turn it down.

The junta have said they have a contingency plan in mind but would not reveal what it is, saying doing so would unduly sway voters.

Academics have urged the lift of curbs on freedom of expression in the lead-up to the referendum so the merits of the draft can be discussed freely.

Through its self-drafted law, the EC has effectively banned debates on the draft anywhere else apart from the forums it will host.

Under the law, anyone who propagates information deemed "distorted, violent, aggressive, inciting or threatening" so that voters do not vote or vote in a particular way shall be considered disrupting the referendum. The penalty is a jail term up to 10 years and a fine not more than 200,000 baht.

"For example, a complaint may be filed that a person has said the draft was written to 'extend the power' of some group. Personally, I don't think it's wrong but I can't say the same for the other four EC commissioners," Mr Somchai explained last Wednesday.   

Critics argued the clause is subjective and gives the EC the prerogative to decide whether a comment is "distorted".

Also on Monday Constitution Drafting Committee chairman Meechai Ruchupan said he would seek an explanation from the government why the CDC is not allowed to take part in the dissemination of the draft charter prior to the public referendum.

Mr Meechai said the CDC had made a proposal to the National Legislative Assembly, which is deliberating a draft bill on the public referendum of the proposed charter, to require the CDC to explain the draft to the people.

But he had heard that the NLA's extraordinary committee scrutinising the bill had dropped the CDC proposal, and he did not understand that, Mr Meechai said.

Mr Meechai said the CDC would ask the government to explain why it was not allowed to do so.

"We wonder who will be responsible for doing that, if not the CDC.  The Election Commission cannot do that because it is not the charter writer.  Moreover, the CDC must be careful as it is not in the position to tell the people whether the draft charter is good or not.  We want to know what happened to the NLA," said Mr Meechai.

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