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Thailand’s king signs constitution and puts country on path to polls

Thailand’s king has signed a new military-backed constitution that strengthens the army’s hand in government and puts the country on the path to an election after three years of junta rule.

The military says the charter, Thailand’s 20th since 1932, will curb unrest in the politically split kingdom and keep out corrupt lawmakers.

But opponents say the document means any polls, whose date keeps slipping, will only offer Thais a form of neutered democracy with a fully appointed senate and tough controls on elected politicians.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne after the death of his widely revered father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, last October, signed the document in a televised ceremony in Bangkok on Thursday.

In a pomp-filled ceremony, the king bestowed the signed charter to Thailand’s junta chief in an ornate throne hall filled with foreign dignitaries and political grandees dressed in white.

Vajiralongkorn surprised many this year by ordering rewrites to parts of the charter that deal with his powers. But in a sign of the opacity surrounding all things royal in Thailand, authorities have yet to release the wording of those new sections.

Thailand has stumbled through more than a decade of political instability that has hampered growth in what was once one of the region’s fastest-growing economies.

In a period known as “the lost decade” Thais witnessed repeated rounds of deadly protests, a string of short-lived governments and two military coups.

The charter received popular approval in a referendum last August, although the junta banned political campaigning against it and the public was not aware of the new king’s desire to tweak it.

Analysts say the latest constitution harks back to the cold war-era when Thailand’s elected lawmakers were often kept in check by unelected bodies and committees in what many called guided democracy.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics expert at Chulalongkorn University, said the document is a far cry from Thailand’s most liberal charter, the 1997 so-called people’s constitution.

“The new charter reverses progress on people’s representation that culminated with the 1997 constitution,” he said. “Now appointments are back en masse at the expense of elected representatives.”

The kingdom’s political rift broadly pits rural and poor supporters of ousted premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra versus a military-backed Bangkok middle class and business elite.

Shinawatra-linked parties have won every election since 2001. Their opponents accuse them of corruption and damaging populist policies.

In addition to an appointed upper house, the new constitution bolsters the powers of the interventionist constitutional court and makes it easier to impeach a civilian leader.

With royal approval secured, the junta’s drafting committee will draw up a raft of organic laws that critics fear could further restrict political parties that have been barred from organising since the coup.

The military says the charter will help purge Thailand of corrupt civilian politicians and raise the possibility of elections being held by mid-2018 once it is signed.

They have also said they will draw up a 20-year plan for the country that any future government will be bound to follow.

This week the ousted PM Yingluck Shinawtra, who is entangled in a negligence trial since the coup that could see her jailed, said she hoped the charter would speed the kingdom’s return to democracy.