Referee agencies and old political tricks
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Referee agencies and old political tricks

The parliament complex is seen in the capital. The next general election in May will bring 500 new legislators to the Lower House, besides the military-appointed 250 senators already in the Upper House. (Photo: AFP)
The parliament complex is seen in the capital. The next general election in May will bring 500 new legislators to the Lower House, besides the military-appointed 250 senators already in the Upper House. (Photo: AFP)

Almost three decades ago, Thai politics reached a critical threshold when public demands resulted in the establishment of a clutch of independent agencies to ensure the transparency and accountability of the political system and the stability and effectiveness of government.

As mandated in the 1997 Constitution, these agencies were led by the Election Commission (EC), the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), the Constitutional Court, and the Administrative Court, also including the offices of State Audit, the Ombudsman, and Anti-Money Laundering.

The story of Thai politics over the past two decades mirrors the politicisation and growing public distrust of these agencies. As the general election on May 14 approaches, it is feared by many that these agencies will go into concerted action to tip the outcome against democratic legitimacy. Such concern is well-founded because the commissioners of these independent agencies were appointed during the most recent military coup period in 2014-2019.

In theory, these agencies, particularly the EC, NACC and charter court are tasked to make sure the political process is clean and fair. Therefore, these agencies are vested with immense authority under the constitution to ban parties and politicians, even investigating and punishing them with stiff jail terms.

After a promising start in the late 1990s with autonomy and impartiality, these three agencies were intervened and penetrated by the political forces aligned with ousted and exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

From 2006, the year Thaksin was overthrown by a military coup, these agencies seem to have gone the other way and remained partial against the Thaksin side since. That year also witnessed a new and ongoing trend called "judicialisation", whereby the judges were encouraged to become politically active in determining political outcomes.

This is why and how the two major judicial dissolutions struck the first two of three parties associated with Thaksin, namely Thai Rak Thai in May 2007 and Palang Prachachon (People's Power) in December 2008. The senior members of these parties were also banned from politics for five years. Over the same stretch, a sitting prime minister tied to Thaksin, Samak Sundaravej, was disqualified for hosting a cooking show. Throughout such judicial activism, the anti-Thaksin side, as represented by the Democrat Party, faced similar allegations of fraud and impropriety but was left untouched time and again.

Fast forward to the more recent period, we saw a similar dissolution in February 2020, this time against the brand new Future Forward Party, whose main constituency consisted of young voters. As a result, its senior leaders were banned from running for public office, this time for ten years. The dismantling of Thai Rak Thai and Palang Prachachon led to Pheu Thai and the Move Forward Party (MFP), both in the current opposition. According to repeated polls, these two parties are fielding strongly with increasing traction among key constituencies.

Meanwhile, the charges against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha for not swearing a complete oath of office and residing on state-owned land after retirement were duly dismissed. Gen Prayut also is exempted from having to declare his assets. His fellow coup-maker, Gen Prawit Wongsuwon who is the deputy prime minister, was ruled innocent for possessing a string of luxury watches that did not belong to him.

Meanwhile, the NACC is headed by a Prawit associate. The head of the State Audit Office is a retired four-star general. The chairman of the anti-money laundering office is seen as close to another coup-maker and Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paochinda.

As polling day gets nearer and its prospects seem increasingly lined up in favour of the opposition Pheu Thai and MFP, questions are understandably being asked about what additional tricks the pro-government, pro-military agencies might have in store.

Over the past two decades, there have been two military coups, multiple party dissolutions, repeated bans on many dozens of elected politicians from running for office, two constitutions in 2007 and 2017 that stacked the rules time and again in favour of the conservative-pro-military regime, including a junta-appointed Senate which stands for one-third of parliament eligible for picking the prime minister. And yet the ruling regime does not seem able to win an election fair and square when their future depends on it.

Accordingly, all eyes should be fixated on the electoral process and on the lookout for any funny business. For example, the EC is again making it hard for voters to streamline their choices by not allowing constituency and party-list ballots to bear the same number for each party.

Voters who want to vote for one party on both counts will have to remember two numbers when they go into the voting booth. Every step of the way in the voting process, right down to the counting and posting of results, will need to be scrutinised by independent third parties because the EC's track record does not inspire confidence and trust.

Other funny business could again involve more party dissolutions and bans on politicians. Already most major parties have been charged with this or that infraction. Pheu Thai is alleged to have violated the constitution because Thaksin supervises it from abroad. The ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) is accused of having received donations from foreign nationals in contravention of the charter.

In the end, the presiding agencies like to have a range of buttons they can press as they see fit. It seems an old trick now, but the pro-regime side may not have many options left. The political and economic costs of yet another military coup d'etat are also not enticing, although this option should never be ruled out among observers. Recent elections in Thailand have proved not to be straightforward affairs.

The partial referee agencies have been able to shape final outcomes, such as in the March 2019 poll when the EC decided to count single-ballot votes in favour of micro parties for one and two MPs who were backing Gen Prayut as prime minister.

But if the winning margin is big enough on May 14, if the results are clear and overwhelming, old bamboozles are unlikely to work the same way and could engender fierce resistance this time.

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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