Thailand referendum
Thai soldiers cast their ballots during a constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok, ThailandKerek Wongsa/Reuters

A referendum to uphold the military-drafted constitution is underway in Thailand as voters will decide how future elected governments would function. The contentious vote will also decide whether Thailand would return to democracy with a general election in 2017.

In response to sharp criticism that the referendum is yet another step by the military to tighten its grip on the country, the junta had argued its constitution would eradicate political corruption and stabilise the country.

Polling stations opened at 8am local time on Sunday, 7 August. More than 50 million people are eligible to vote. Though electoral authorities say they are expecting an 80% turnout, the early hours have been dull.

"We need to hold a general election in 2017 because that is a promise we made. There has been no charter that pleases people 100%," said Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former military general, who dumped the old constitution after he took over in 2014.

Early results are expected to emerge at 8pm local time shortly after polling closes. "If you stay at home you are not involved in democracy," said former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was overthrown by the military, after casting her vote. If the constitution comes into force, the military-appointed leaders would technically have more powers than the elected senate.

There has been little or no debate on the merits of the draft constitution, which was introduced in March 2016, as the junta-controlled regime silenced anyone who campaigned against the draft in the run-up to the referendum. Scores of opposition activists, critics, and politicians have been detained during their campaigns.

"There is great anticipation and excitement here in Thailand because we haven't had a say for so long. This draft constitution is highly consequential about how things are going to be in Thailand in the coming months and years," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, told Al Jazeera.