BANGKOK Thailand will hold a general election in 2017, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Tuesday, seeking to allay concerns his military government might delay plans for a return to democracy, days after the country endorsed a military-backed constitution.
The vote in favour of the constitution in Sunday's referendum, the biggest test of public opinion since then army chief Prayuth seized power in a 2014 coup, is generally seen as a boost for the legitimacy of the government and its plans.
Under the junta's "roadmap" to restore democratic rule, Prayuth had previously said a general election would be held in 2017.
His confirmation of that plan, in his first public comments since the referendum, came after the U.S. State Department on Monday urged Thailand to take steps to restore an elected, civilian government as soon as possible.
"Please have confidence in the roadmap," Prayuth told reporters at Government House, his official offices, before a cabinet meeting.
"An election will take place in 2017, I have never said anything different to this."
The government says the constitution will restore stable, clean politics after a decade of turmoil stemming from confrontation between populist political forces and the military-royalist establishment.
Two military takeovers and outbreaks of deadly civil unrest over the years have stunted growth in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.
Analysts say a desire for political stability drove the "yes" vote, with 61 percent in favour, preliminary results based on a count of 94 percent of votes show.
Critics, including major political parties, had denounced the constitution before the vote, saying it would stifle democracy by giving unelected lawmakers, including those appointed by the military, veto power over elected governments.
The European Union also urged a quick return to democracy, calling on authorities to lift restrictions on freedom of expression that have been in place since the 2014 coup.
"The EU continues to call upon the Thai authorities to create the conditions for a genuine democratic transition leading to early general elections," it said in a statement.
After the cabinet meeting, Prayuth said he would make a televised statement on his government's next steps after the official publication of full referendum results on Wednesday.
Meechai Ruchupan, head of the Constitution Drafting Committee, said the new constitution would come into effect by November.
There has been no sign of unrest since the referendum. Members of the anti-junta opposition say they are biding their time until the 2017 election, when they can try to scrap the military charter, if a party they back takes power.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Robert Birsel)