Electoral democracy can still succeed
published : 6 Feb 2014 at 00:00
newspaper section: News
That the election last Sunday was inconclusive and incomplete was a foregone conclusion. However, its controversial results revealed much more than many anticipated. Despite the uncertainty of the poll results, only 89.2% of which are complete, electoral democracy still works in Thailand. Eventually, it must be allowed to work within the rules of Thailand's democratic system for outcomes to be valid and sustainable.
A voter defiantly shows his ID card while sporting a victory sign to express support for the poll while anti-government protesters try to block their way to vote in the snap election on Sunday. EPA/NARONG SANGNAK
Not only do outcomes from outside the rules risk further political turmoil, they should now be seen as unnecessary. For the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protesting in the streets of Bangkok and the Democrat Party that boycotted the election, winning within the system can be achieved. For the ruling Pheu Thai Party and caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, staying in office can no longer be taken for granted.
Indeed, the election on Sunday was the first time a political party under the control of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra failed to win outright. This was a remarkable outcome. Thaksin's political vehicles won by whopping margins in previous polls in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011. In the post-coup December 2007 contest, the margin was the closest, with Thaksin's People's Power Party and Democrat Party each garnering 37% of the popular vote, although the overall number of constituency and party-list seats favoured Thaksin's party by a margin of 233 to 165 in a 480-member Lower House.
But by July 2011, after two-and-a-half years in power, the Democrat Party lost to Pheu Thai by 265 to 159, when the national assembly reverted to 500 members. The party-list count was expanded to 125 from 100 MPs to give the Democrat Party a greater chance. Yet Pheu Thai still surpassed the Democrat Party by a margin of 61 to 44 on party-list votes.
The most telling indicator this time was voter turnout. In 2001-11, the average turnout nationwide was 71.37% but this high participation rate dwindled to 45.8% on Sunday. For Bangkok where the average turnout closely tracked the national figures, only 26.18% came out to vote, an unsurprising outcome in view of anti-government sentiments in the capital dating back to anti-Thaksin protests in 2005.
A protrusive result was in the Pheu Thai heartlands in the North and
Northeast, which completed voting. In these two regions that make up over half of the national electorate, turnout barely exceeded 50%, most likely with considerable numbers of "no vote" and "vote no", or those who chose to stay home and those who exercised their voting rights but chose nobody (not those who generally did not vote in the past).
An overwhelmingly high turnout of more than the 70% in these two regions would have been supportive of Pheu Thai and a protest vote against the PDRC, but instead the relatively low turnout is a setback for the ruling party. Pheu Thai's support in the North and Northeast has been dented, waiting to be won over by other parties.
The more than 20 million voters who constitute the 45.8% turnout should not be understated. Each single vote is sacred in any democracy and relevant overall. Ultimately, it was crucial for the more than 20 million to have their say after the past few months of continuous brinkmanship and turmoil in national politics centred in Bangkok.
But those who did not vote were equally important. Many of these, close to 30% on a national average, generally do not vote. The margin of close to 25% at the national level who voted in the past but did not bother to turn out last Sunday is the key puzzle.
These unusual no-shows may have been influenced by the PDRC's activities and its exposure of government corruption, the disastrous fiscal burdens of the rice-pledging scheme, and the amnesty and Senate amendment bills that displayed hubris and gross disregard for checks-and-balance mechanisms.
Perhaps many voters opted out because they were fed up with the political crisis gripping the country or maybe they felt intimidated and feared for their personal safety.
Sadly, we will never really know why voter turnout this time was so low in a country with high voter participation rates because the Democrats chose not to run and the PDRC campaigned on not turning up.
This missing 25% of the electorate appears unwilling to show up for Pheu Thai (and other parties). And it is likely that some of the 45.8% who voted chose parties other than Pheu Thai. In short, it is now plausible to defeat Thaksin's party at the polls.
The losers of this doomed but significant poll are Thaksin, Pheu Thai and the Yingluck government. But the PDRC did not win because the election took place despite its vow to prevent it.
The Democrat Party could not have won because it chose not to join, its second boycott in four elections under the current leadership. The winners are those who participated by consciously staying home or who went to the polls.
Thai democracy can be made the ultimate winner if previous electoral losers realise that they can actually win future elections by working harder and playing within the rules of the game.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor of International Political Economy and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, 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.