The anatomy of a very tricky election
published : 29 Mar 2019 at 04:00
newspaper section: News
Thailand's first election in nearly eight years was supposed to bring some closure to a self-appointed military government and clarity to the country's democratic future. Instead, it has generated much controversy and probable continuity for the incumbent military regime with murky political directions ahead. Central to the questions and outcomes surrounding the poll on Sunday is the Election Commission (EC). Its actions and interpretations of events will have much to say about what happens next.
At issue is whether the EC, whose seven members were appointed during junta rule, has been a capable and impartial referee and administrator of the election for 350 constituency and 150 party-list MPs. Prior to the election, the EC was already seen by many as partial because it was quick to move on dissolution allegations against the Thaksin Shinawatra-aligned Thai Raksa Chart Party, but slow to scrutinise alleged illegal fundraising by the pro-military Palang Pracharath.
While the EC charged and the Constitutional Court soon after disbanded Thai Raksa Chart for constitutional violations, the Palang Pracharath's fundraising case was duly cleared. The fundraising may have involved state-enterprises in contravention of election law, but the EC's decision was justified on the grounds that no foreign money was involved.
The EC also took its time on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's potential disqualification as a prime minister candidate because he was accused of being a "state official" running for office without resigning first. Just three days before the election, the EC simply announced that Gen Prayut was not a state official and therefore can be proposed for the premiership.
So before polling stations opened, the EC was already suffering from a credibility deficit. Its actions after the election may also spur allegations that the poll agency is merely a junta tentacle.
But the EC's role in the election process itself is mixed. True, the election-organising body was clearly out of its depth, compared to previous elections dating back to January 2001. It inflicted reputational damage when some of its members undertook what looked like a junket to Europe but was passed off as a "study tour" just a few weeks before the poll.
Unsurprisingly, in view of its politicisation and lack of organisational focus, the EC was utterly unprepared even though it had been allocated a record budget of 5.8 billion baht. Local EC officials made wide-ranging mistakes with mismatched ballot papers and the counting and reporting of votes. It remains to be seen whether bigger and more consequential discrepancies, such as the hundreds of thousands of votes reported to exceed the actual number of voters, will be rectified.
Yet the EC is not entirely to blame. The handiwork of the constitution drafters is also at fault. The constitutional aim to weaken the political party system and dilute the bond between party and voters complicated the voting process and its results. Chief among these design problems was the single ballot.
Since 2001, Thai voters received two ballot papers, one for their preferred MP candidate, the other for the party. The idea was to promote voter-party affiliation and allow capable individuals to enter the electoral fray on party-lists without having to wade through the mud of campaigning. Individual MPs and their patronage networks and canvassers still mattered, but the party system was directly promoted for the first time.
The 2017 constitution reversed all that. With single ballots, the average voter has to choose an MP candidate, a party, and a proposed premiership choice in one go. The EC also went with the government's preference to do away with uniformed party numbering. This time, MP candidates from the same party ended up with different numbers in different constituencies.
Perversely, the constitution drafters failed squarely in the case of the newcomer Future Forward Party (FFP), which phenomenally garnered about 6.2 million popular votes and came in third ahead of the long-established Democrat Party and just behind the Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharath parties. These votes were completely tied to the FFP's party affiliation and platform because its constituency candidates were virtually unknown. The party system, contrary to the constitution drafters' intent, has ironically strengthened with this election.
With tricky technicalities embedded in the charter to ensure a fragile coalition government and keep the incumbent military regime strong, the vote counting and reporting processes became problematic. It is conceivable that the hundreds of millions of excess votes that were reported stemmed for technological mistakes, as mobile applications were used for the first time with such a complicated electoral system. As each constituency had different candidates winning votes under this or that party number, the centralised counting across constituencies and provinces was understandably fraught with discrepancies.
The EC has to sort out myriad allegations of fraud and wrongdoing by May 9 when official results have to be announced. It is in dire need of a professional spokesperson who can communicate effectively with the media and the public.
While the margins of MP seats are likely to move around in the weeks ahead, the trends from voter preferences are clear. The FFP has shot up from nowhere to be a force of hope and aspirations for a new way of politics away from the divisive and authoritarian past. Thanks to a last-minute surge, the incumbent pro-military Palang Pracharath has fared better than expected as the second largest seat-winning party. It will no doubt try to claim office with backing from the army and junta-appointed Senate.
The Thaksin-affiliated Pheu Thai came away with 137 MP seats, its fewest since the party machine started in 2001, but still held its ground because it fielded candidates in only 250 of 350 constituencies. Pheu Thai also lost some seats due to the demise of its sister party Thai Raksa Chart. The longest-established Democrat Party suffered the most in this contest.
What to look out for now in the formation of the next government is whether the poll will end up being nullified because of the various infractions and alleged fraud, and how straightforwardly the rest of the election process goes.
Nullification of the election is unlikely because these are the results the junta and military government have been looking for. Charges that lead to poll nullification must bear systematic and nationwide consequences. This and that fraud in different places are specific and can be deemed isolated.
The dismissal of the New Zealand overseas ballots, which deprived more than 1,500 citizens of their voting rights, affects Thais as a whole because not all eligible voters who wanted to vote were allowed to choose. This is a case that has to be watched in terms of poll nullification.
Personally, I happened to be giving a lunch talk on Asean at the Thai embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, on Feb 20. I saw the embassy's eagerness and enthusiasm in organising the overseas vote there first hand. Culpability for these excluded votes does not stem from New Zealand but from the nexus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Thai Airways and the EC. Unless this matter is cleared up quickly, doubts will grow about the integrity of the entire election process.
In the near term, a number of MPs presumably will be ordered to stand in election reruns or banned altogether in fraudulent cases. If the EC decisions mainly go against anti-junta parties, then more controversy will ensue. Even a swing of 10-20 seats can make a difference between which parties end up in government or opposition.
If the EC goes for the jugular by moving to dissolve anti-military parties and/or ban their leaders, especially as the pro-junta parties and leaders remain intact, such moves may be tantamount to disenfranchisement. In the past, systematic disenfranchisement ended up in street demonstrations.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University
A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.