Thailand's voters have approved an army-drafted constitution, but a hefty "No" vote suggests December's general election will be messy, with former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra still a potent political force.
Announcing the official results of Thailand's first referendum, the Election Commission said yesterday 57.8 percent of voters had accepted the charter, designed to prevent a repeat of Thaksin's powerful single-party style of government.
However, 42.2 percent rejected it, sending a signal to the generals who removed the telecommunications billionaire in a coup last September that they will struggle to control the make-up of the next administration.
Just more than 25 million, or 57.6 percent, of the 45 million electorate voted.
Having pressed for a "Yes" vote, the army-appointed post-coup government had been hoping for at least a 60 percent turnout for what will be the 18th charter for the nation.
The election commission chief Apichart Sukhakanon suggested Dec. 16 for the election but said the commissioners would meet and choose between that and Dec. 23 and forward their recommendation to the government.
However, a stony-faced Surayud refused to talk to reporters yesterday when the extent of lingering Thaksin support was clear.
"We missed our target," said Thirapat Serirangsan, a minister in the prime minister's office. "But when you get more than 50 percent of the votes, that's a majority."
Army chief and coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin told state Channel 9 television from Kuala Lumpur he was "satisfied" with the turnout even though it was below his target.
Thaksin, 58, has been in exile in Britain since the coup and spent Sunday afternoon watching his newly acquired soccer club, Manchester City, beat Manchester United 1-0 in a match that generated as much interest back home as the referendum.
Many Thais, especially those in Bangkok, appeared motivated to vote by a desire to see an end to the turmoil that has reigned since Thaksin's family sold control of the telecoms empire he founded to Singapore for a tax-free US$1.9 billion in January last year.
The stock market rose 3.5 percent, in line with a rally across Asia, amid relief there had been no major upset, although analysts said the "Yes" camp's smaller-than-expected margin of victory suggested the upcoming election would be both closely fought 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 and Thaksin biographer Chris Baker said.
Even though Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party has been disbanded and 111 top 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.
The Sunday vote showed the country remains largely divided between Bangkok residents, who staged months of protests calling for Thaksin to step down, and those in the poor, rural northeastern provinces where support for the former prime minister runs high.
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 Thaksin supporters as the coup mastermind.