POLITICS-THAILAND: Straitjacket Elections Has Army Stamp All Over

 

By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Oct 29 (IPS) – The first parliamentary election to be held in Thailand since last year’s army coup is generating excitement for the wrong reasons. Political parties, the media and analysts are up in arms over a raft of restrictions imposed on candidates for the Dec. 23 poll.

Under the new rules announced by the election commission (EC) the customary festive air of a campaign, where a prospective parliamentarian is feted with a public parade to promote his or her candidacy once the race officially begins, is banned. Also deemed illegal is the practice of candidates enlisting popular figures from the world of film, music and entertainment to boost their campaigns.

For this poll, say the commissioners, the broadcast media will not be able to exercise editorial judgement as to which candidate they want to feature in a news programme or an interview ahead of the election. The new regulations state that television and radio stations must invite representatives from all parties to participate in every programme if candidates are to be featured.

Even the country’s universities have not been spared. They will not be able to conduct the pre-election seminars and discussions with select candidates, a practice that has helped to feed the political debate and generate more information about the issues at stake. The universities must follow the same rules as the media: feature representatives of all parties at every event or none at all.

No wonder headlines such as ‘’EC’s restrictions on political rallies stifle democratic freedoms’’ have appeared in the local press after the EC made its rules public last week. In the column that appeared below that headline in Sunday’s edition of ‘The Nation,’ Nophakhun Limsamarphun argues that the limits, including restriction of election campaign rallies to specially designated areas, ‘’is a risky proposition that runs counter to the basic principles of democracy, in which access to information must be unfettered’’.

Thailand’s media associations have issued statements that the regulations violate the guarantees of a right to freedom of information and speech upheld in the current constitution, the country’s 18th charter, which was approved by a simple majority in a mid-August referendum. ‘’Restrictions imposed on media coverage could lead to a lack of sufficient information on candidates that in turn could affect voters’ decision at polling stations,’’ Thakerng Somsap, president of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, was quoted as having told Saturday’s ‘Bangkok Post’ newspaper.
The current EC is being accused of exceeding its mandate and the role expected of an election monitoring body that has been shaped since the first commission was created after the country’s 1997 constitution. ‘’Such an attempt to micromanage the election is unprecedented,’’ Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told IPS. ‘’It is an attempt to limit electioneering and the open discussion of politics that is normal in any election campaign.’’

Other analysts, such as Michael Nelson, faulted the EC for upholding the conservative and authoritarian streak that runs through the country’s entrenched political elite. ‘’These new rules are a form of bureaucratic authoritarianism,’’ Michael, a German academic specialising in Thai political culture, said in an interview. ‘’This shows how utterly ridiculous their thinking is. These mindless bureaucratic rules are so far outside reasonable behaviour.’’

‘’Electioneering is an activity among citizens in the public space where the state should not intervene in such a manner,’’ he added. ‘’It confirms that the current election commission is not neutral. There was a far more liberal democratic atmosphere when elections were held under (former prime minister) Thaksin (Shinawatra).’’

The questionable climate ahead of the polls comes at an awkward moment for the country’s junta and its pro-military government and sympathisers. The forthcoming election has been billed by the ruling class as its commitment to restore Thailand’s credentials as another democracy in South-east Asia. On Saturday, the military-appointed prime minister, Gen. Surayud Chulanont, urged the country’s 45 million voters to come out in strength at the December ballot during his weekly radio broadcast.

Bangkok’s effort to restore its sullied image following last year’s putsch goes beyond domestic concerns, too. After all, the country has not been invited for the first time to an international meeting of the world’s democracies to be held in mid-November in the African nation of Mali. Thailand had enjoyed a seat at the Community of Democracies, a global group of the world’s oldest and newest democracies, at the ministerial meetings in 2000, in Poland, 2002, in South Korea, and 2005, in Chile.
Thailand’s exclusion from the international family of democracies was not what the country’s military leaders had in mind when they mounted the putsch in September 2006 to drive from power the twice-elected former prime minister Thaksin. The country’s 18th coup was justified by the junta as an attempt to help restore the democratic culture that they said Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai) party had destroyed during over five years in government.

Yet in the months since, the space for a free and open political environment has come under threat by laws, verdicts and rules imposed by supposedly independent institutions, such as the EC. The mid-August plebiscite to approve the new constitution was replete with a host of anti-democratic measures, ranging from political parties forced to play a diminished role to rules that threatened arrests of people campaigning against the referendum.

‘’The thinking behind the election commissions decisions is the same as the junta: they do not want the Thai Rak Thai or the party representing it to return to power,’’ says Giles. ‘’What they fail to realise is that the coup which overthrew an elected government destroyed Thai democracy in the first place.’’

 

POLITICS-THAILAND: Straitjacket Elections Has Army Stamp All Over

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