By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha called on Wednesday for acceptance of the outcome of a referendum that approved a military-backed constitution, saying unity was needed to tackle problems facing the country.
The constitution, which critics fear will stifle democracy, won the approval of 61.35 percent of those who voted on Sunday, the Election Commission said earlier as it released final results.
“As with every election, there will be those who find the results favorable and those who are not pleased with the outcome,” Prayuth said in a televised speech.
“Nevertheless, I ask that all of us accept the results … let us set aside our difference for now and move forward together to confront the complex challenges that lie ahead of us.”
The draft was rejected by 38.65 percent of voters, the commission said. Turnout was almost 60 percent.
The result was a convincing win for Prayuth in the biggest test of public opinion since he, as army chief, seized power in a 2014 coup.
For more than a decade, Thailand has been divided between populist political forces led by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 coup, and the royalist and military establishment, which accuses Thaksin of poisoning politics with corruption and nepotism, which he denies.
The former telecoms tycoon lives in self-imposed exiled to avoid a graft conviction he says was politically motivated.
The government has said the constitution will heal the divide and bring stable, clean government. Critics say it is aimed at blunting Thaksin’s influence and ensuring military oversight of politics.
Members of the opposition have said they accepted the referendum result and would bide their time until the election, when they hoped to win power and overturn the constitution.
Prayuth, seeking to allay concern he might delay plans for a vote, said a general election would be held in 2017.
The United States and European Union have urged a quick return to democracy, calling on authorities to lift restrictions on freedom of expression.
Politicians from both sides of the divide and rights groups opposed draft charter, which includes clauses for a fully appointed Senate, with seats reserved for chiefs of the armed forces.
Other provisions would make it difficult for a single party to win a majority in the 500-member lower house, likely meaning weak coalitions, and allowing the Senate to play a critical role in parliament.
Human Rights Watch said the constitution facilitated “unaccountable military power and a deepening dictatorship”.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomat and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Simon Webb, Robert Birsel)