Thailand's army-installed government declared victory yesterday in a referendum on a new constitution, and vowed to hold general elections by year's end to restore democracy following last September's coup.
Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont claimed victory after exit polls showed a majority of voters had approved the charter.
"We consider that this constitution has been approved by the people, and by the end of August the constitution will be submitted to the king for endorsement," Surayud said on national television.
"Overall, the turnout was more than 50 percent. I thank the Thai people for coming out to exercise their vote," he said.
Yesterday's vote was the first test at the ballot box for the ruling junta, which ousted elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup.
Junta leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin said he was "satisfied" with the result.
Surayud, who had said the country's first-ever referendum would help put the nation back on track after more than a year of turmoil, said that approval of the charter meant general elections would be held by year's end.
"I reaffirm that the election will be held late this year. The exact date is still under consideration, but I believe the most suitable date is after the king's birthday [on Dec. 5]," he said.
The prime minister spoke about 30 minutes after polling stations had closed. Early returns showed that with 14 percent of ballots counted, more than 58 percent had approved the charter.
Exit polls showed that about 68 percent had approved the charter, with about two-thirds of Thailand's 45 million voters cast ballots.
Although the military has insisted the charter will clear a path to elections, critics say it will return control of government to traditional power centers in the military, the bureaucracy and the royal palace.
All three institutions have played key roles in most of Thailand's turbulent political history, which has seen 24 prime ministers and 18 coups over the last 75 years.
Thaksin, who since the coup has lived in exile in Britain where he has bought the Manchester City soccer club, has called the draft "fruit from a poisoned tree."
His allies who led the campaign against the charter accepted their defeat, but said the referendum had failed to meet democratic standards.
"Government officials have misled the people by telling them there would be no elections if the constitution did not pass. They restricted the freedom of expression of people in the areas under martial law," said Chaturon Chaisang, one-time leader of the ousted and banned Thai Rak Thai party.
Half the country has been under martial law since the coup, while a new law threatened prison for anyone convicted of obstructing the referendum.
Voting proceeded smoothly except for in Thailand's Muslim-majority south, where a separatist insurgency is raging and two people were injured in a bombing.
Political analysts said that Thais were less concerned with the content of the charter then with ensuring that the military sticks with its promise to hold elections this year.
"By voting yes, Thai people sent a clear message to the junta that they want elections in December," said Panitan Wattanayagorn from Chulalongkorn University.