Thailand's military government adopts interim constitution to pave way for eventual elections


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BANGKOK — Thailand adopted a temporary constitution on Tuesday, taking its first step toward the slow return of electoral democracy after two months of military rule. But the charter's clauses allow the ruling junta to continue to hold substantial power even after an interim Cabinet and legislature take office.

The 48-article charter was announced on television after being endorsed by the king and posted on the website of the Royal Gazette, where new laws must be published. Its enactment is mostly a formality to carry out previously announced plans for drafting a new permanent constitution and forming a temporary legislature for parliamentary duties. The temporary constitution will allow an interim legislature and Cabinet to begin governing the country in September.

The army overthrew an elected government in a coup on May 22, citing the need to end months of political conflict. It has said it hopes to have a new election by October 2015.

Although the interim charter is supposed to pave the way for civilian rule, it gives the ruling junta what amounts to supreme power over political developments. It also legalizes all actions it has taken since the coup, as well as the takeover itself.

Critics charge that the army plans to make the permanent constitution less democratic by reducing the power of elected politicians and increasing the number of appointed legislators, with the goal of allowing the conservative, royalist ruling elite to retain power.

The junta has shown little tolerance of dissent, arresting people who protest its takeover, warning activists and politicians to keep quiet, and instituting the harshest censorship in decades.

The coup was rooted in divisions that have wracked Thailand since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, remains highly popular among the poor in Thailand's north and northeast, and parties controlled by him have won every national election since 2001.

His opponents, including the country's traditional elites, who are tied to the military and the royal palace, bitterly opposed him and sought to remove all traces of Thaksin's political machine from politics. They claim he used money politics to win landslide election victories, boosted especially by the support of the country's rural majority and urban poor, who benefited from his populist policies.

The coup unseated a government that had been led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was forced from the prime minister's office earlier in May for abuse of power involving a civil service appointment. Her supporters claim her removal, as well as the coup, were the result of a conspiracy by a traditional ruling class that felt it was losing influence under a democratic system.

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