The karmic results of voter suppression

The karmic results of voter suppression

In this Feb 21 photo, a sympathiser of the Future Forward party shows a message
In this Feb 21 photo, a sympathiser of the Future Forward party shows a message "10 more years, we can wait," after the charter court disbands the party. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)

When Thailand's justice system issues decisions that have political ramifications, fewer people are holding their breath these days because conclusions are increasingly foregone. In fact, when the historical record comes into fuller view, it will be seen that the politicisation of the judiciary has fundamentally undermined Thailand's fragile democratic development and reinforced authoritarian rule that has been resurgent over the past 15 years. Nowhere are these judicial sins and shortcoming more salient and damning than the systematic and selective disenfranchisement of voters.

Such disenfranchisement has taken place so often that it has become routine, almost a tried and tested formula to effect power-holders' preferred outcomes. For example, when exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved in May 2007, after the military coup that overthrew its administration in September 2006, the then-ruling party's more than 16 million voters were robbed of elected representation. They bided their time and waited for the next election. After a coup-inspired new constitution that aimed to keep big parties down, these same voters opted for Thai Rak Thai's successor party, named Palang Prachachon (People's Power), in the December 2007 polls.

It took less than one year for Palang Prachachon to be similarly dissolved, thereby denying the votes of more than 12 million Thais in a deja vu scenario after yellow-clad protesters occupied and effectively shuttered Bangkok's main international airport for an entire week. Along the way, several smaller political parties were also dismantled, including Chart Thai and Matchima Thipataya, on Dec 2, 2008.

At issue was not only the party dissolution itself. Each time, a party was torn apart, its members were poached and enticed by competitors or fragmented into smaller offshoots. Many of the executive members and leading elected representatives of dissolved parties were further slapped with five-year bans, eliminating them from politics and from their constituency bases. As a result, no major political party has been able to develop and strengthen over the long term.

Also facing party dissolution charges back then was the pro-military Democrat Party. But somehow the Constitutional Court ruled in November 2010 that the Election Commission had filed charges against the Democrat Party too late to be counted. The Democrat Party has thus been the only major party that has been charged but not dissolved.

The main agencies that appear politically motivated when they are supposed to be "independent" are the Election Commission, National Anti-Corruption Commission, and Constitutional Court. These three bodies collectively wield enough authority to constrain and dislodge political parties and elected politicians in short order. The mostly male and aged officials who look after these politicised agencies happen to have been appointed during the May 2014 coup era, a few even harking back to the 2006 coup.

These agencies were politically assertive again in the latest case of disenfranchisement, when the Future Forward Party (FFP) was dissolved last February, disenfranchising more than 6.3 million of party voters. It has been established that many of FFP's voters are young and drawn to the party's agenda of reforms of Thailand's traditional institutions and practices, from the military and the education to the economy and constitution. In a conciliatory move, FFP even backed off from its original call for monarchy reform.

It did not matter because its dismantlement seemed preordained for what it stood for -- the riddance of military dominance and changes and adjustments that can move Thailand forward. Multiple charges were filed against FFP, including the party's triangular-looking banner which was alleged to resemble the "Illuminati" cult.

In the end, it was an officially declared loan the party took from its leader that was the cause used for its dissolution. Some charge or another was bound to stick.

In the event, 16 party executives were banned from electoral politics for ten years, including 12 party MPs. From the third-largest winning party with 81 seats -- and just about the only one in the world where a party with all first-time contestants winning so big a result -- FFP was reduced to a mid-sized party of less than half of its original strength, suffering from defections and poaching from other parties. It had to register a new name, Move Forward, which remains true to its reform cause.

Never has Thailand had such promising new talent enter the fray to chart a course for a better country and yet to be politically decapitated in a methodical fashion. This outcome is likely to discourage Thailand's ample talent to join electoral politics and steer the country forward. On the other hand, it encourages the age-old narrative that puts down elected representatives for being old-style patronage-driven "politicians", upholding and celebrating the "good" forces that take power without popular legitimacy.

The lesson is that Thailand's political party system has been deliberately weakened and kept weak to keep established centres of power in the military, monarchy, judiciary, and bureaucracy paramount and decisive. No democracy can take root until voters have an equal say on how they are to be governed without the usurpation and distortion of party dissolutions and power plays behind the scenes.

The "karmic" results of repeated disenfranchisement are street protests. It is not rocket science. People whose votes are taken away because their chosen political parties have been dissolved are likely to resort to extra-parliamentary means to show their grievances. While Thai Rak Thai voters put up and later picked Palang Prachachon, the latter party's summary elimination begot the red-shirt demonstrations in 2009-10, each time dispersed by military force.

Now it is the turn of FFP's voters. Unlike the red shirts who only wanted their votes to count without wanting to change the political system they lived by, the younger generations roughly from 15 to 40 years old want a complete overhaul.

They are demanding neither power or immediate new polls but a new constitution that subsumes the traditional institutions, particularly the military and monarchy, under elected representation with equality in a newly chartered democratic system. They are unlikely to go away quietly, even if attendant costs and risks are high, until Thailand is owned by all of its people, not an incumbent minority.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

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.

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