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Jan 26, 9:24 AM EST

Thai leader says 2017 polls can be held without new charter

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AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

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BANGKOK (AP) -- The leader of Thailand's military government said Tuesday the country will hold elections as planned in 2017, even if a proposed constitution is rejected beforehand in a national referendum.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who heads the junta that took power after an army coup in May 2014, vowed to hold the polls in July 2017 in response to reporters' questions after the weekly Cabinet meeting. The issue was recently raised when the head of the junta's Constitution Drafting Committee said an interim constitution imposed after the coup would continue to be used if the draft charter is rejected in the referendum.

However, the interim constitution does not have any provisions for holding an election.

Prayuth declined to comment directly on what constitution would be observed in the event of a negative referendum vote.

"I will solve this issue myself, I have been involved with the problem from the beginning, and so I must try to figure out the solution. Even though the draft constitution might not pass the referendum, the national election must be held in July 2017 as written in the roadmap," Prayuth said.

The junta had originally slated an election for this year, but pushed back the date after a legislature it appointed rejected a draft constitution written by a committee it selected. Critics believe the junta is mainly interested in prolonging its time in power.

The junta has restricted freedom of speech, and even political parties are forbidden from meeting and discussing the draft constitution, although individual politicians have spoken out.

Various aspects of the proposed constitution, which has yet to be completed, have been criticized for being repressive and meant to ensure continuing military influence over the government. Several political groups have announced that they will seek to have the referendum reject the charter.

Prayuth, who often lashes out verbally if challenged or criticized, was dismissive of concerns that the draft fails to protect civil and human rights.

The junta and its supporters have strived to reduce the power of politicians and political parties, blaming them for sometimes violent civil unrest that has bedeviled the country for almost a decade.

The junta's critics believe it seeks mainly to cripple one political faction, that of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 coup. Thaksin's electoral popularity challenged the power of the country's traditional ruling class, which includes the military.

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