Post-poll lull has a lot to answer for
published : 26 May 2023 at 05:00
newspaper section: Oped
After a clear election victory, Thailand should already have a new government in office by now with Pita Limjaroenrat as prime minister, as his Move Forward Party (MFP) together with opposition ally Pheu Thai Party won a clear mandate of more than 58% of 500 lower house seats. Yet their coalition government in waiting among eight parties with 313 elected representatives is facing several critical roadblocks, including the military-appointed senate and the Election Commission (EC). Public pressure is now needed to be piled on these powerful but biased bodies that were appointed during the coup-dominated era in 2014–2019 to comply with the people's wishes, as expressed at the polls on May 14.
Although the military-inspired 2017 charter allows the EC up to 60 days to certify election results, this long period is not needed. In the 1997 charter, the certification period was just a few days. The emphasis back then was the expeditious process to carry out the electorate's verdict. In the 2007 charter, this post-poll interim became no more than one month.
But this has now been extended up to two months. It was partly a deliberate move to sap the momentum and strong mandate in case any party emerged with a big win. It was also designed to give the EC the latitude and authority to manage the post-poll results. After the March 2019 poll, for example, the EC made rulings that favoured tiny parties that ended up with single MPs who then lined up behind Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and his Palang Pracharath Party to take office. Also, the EC filed a fatal charge of media share ownership against the leader of the Future Forward Party, Move Forward's forerunner, resulting in the party's dissolution and a 10-year ban on its leaders.
The post-election lull was also set up to put political parties and elected politicians in a negative light. It's natural after an election for parties and politicians to negotiate the formation of a coalition government. This process can come across as squabbling and haggling in deal-making for cabinet portfolios. The longer such negotiations take place, the more parties and elected representatives can be deemed as fractious and self-interested, thereby discrediting democratic rule in support of more authoritarian ways.
After the EC's 60-day finalisation period, there is another month-long process before parliament can be convened to choose a president, followed by the bicameral selection of the prime minister, including the involvement of appointed senators. Not until mid-August, after a general election that took place in mid-May, will Thailand have a newly elected government. The three-month wait is intentional to mould outcomes the power holders prefer or at least can put up with.
In most other countries, this is not the case. In Australia's most recent election, the newly chosen government took mere hours to take office. In the United States' presidential election every four years, there is a transition between an early November vote and the winner's oath of office on Jan 20, but all voters know within hours and days -- not weeks and months like in Thailand -- who will occupy the executive office and the legislature.
What's more, the recent election was the cleanest Thailand has ever had. Due to public distrust of the EC because of what it did in 2019, countless volunteers monitored polling stations and vote counting across the country on election day. The vote results yielded 151 seats for the MFP and 141 for Pheu Thai, outstripping the pro-military camps comprising Bhumjaithai, Palang Pracharath, United Thai Nation and Democrat parties by wide margins. The Bangkok results, where Move Forward captured 32 out of 33 with the one place going to Pheu Thai, were an opposition sweep. None of these results is being disputed.
The EC, therefore, should not require 60 days to certify the results. The EC can expedite this certification process if it wants to. But the seven-member committee, all appointed in 2018 during the military government after the May 2014 coup, appears to be taking its time to make space for mischief and foul play.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Pita is under a familiar flimsy charge of share ownership of a defunct media company, known as independent television or "iTV". This TV station was a by-product of an earlier coup era in 1991–92 when an independent broadcasting channel was in public demand to offer choice away from the state-owned mouthpieces. The station became unprofitable and was purchased by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's business group in the early 2000s. After the September 2006 military coup that dislodged Thaksin from office, iTV was nationalised and reinvented into a public broadcasting service called Thai PBS.
That Mr Pita's family owned a small number of iTV shares -- numbering more than 7,000 owners in terms of size -- was not surprising because his uncle worked for Thaksin. Mr Pita also reported to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) before running for office. But this is the charge now, filed by a Palang Pracharat member who is on record for having received a luxury car from his unnamed big boss, that could derail Mr Pita's premiership. Clearly, the MFP leader could not have intended to risk his election chances for a handful of shares in a company which is no longer in business.
But legal standards in Thailand are applied and exercised arbitrarily. The law is not about justice and fair play but also about power and how and when it is interpreted and enforced. Never mind that Gen Prayut never declared his assets while in office when he should have done. Never mind that Palang Pracharath leader Gen Prawit Wongsuwon got away with owning luxury watches from dubious sources, not to mention that his party apparently accepted a donation from a Chinese entity in violation of the constitution and making it liable for dissolution. Never mind that Bhumjaithai is under public scrutiny for mismanaging the Covid-19 vaccine procurement, not to mention the party leader's construction firm, which overran the budget and timeline in building the new parliament.
Mr Pita is being targeted because his reformist MFP won the election, and he poses an existential threat to the established centres of power. The EC, along with the NACC and charter court, have been doing the bidding of these traditional sources of power.
If they again resort to the same old tricks of disqualifying Mr Pita and/or dissolving Move Forward to shape final government outcomes, it is unlikely to go down without protests and unrest because the party, its leader and reform agenda won spectacular and inexorable popular support.
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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