December 24, 2007
Fifteen months after it took over in a bloodless coup, the military junta that rules Thailand finally delivered yesterday on its promise to hold democratic elections. Voters responded by showing up at the polls in massive numbers, in a turnout estimated at more than 71% of the electorate. As we go to press, the final results aren’t yet in, but voter turnout alone is a powerful reminder of Thais’ desire for democracy.
Thailand has had a rough ride since the generals ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on September 19, 2006. A series of economic bungles sent the stock market plummeting and scared off foreign investors. Democratic freedoms, meanwhile, took a big hit. The junta imposed a nine-month ban on political activity, and a military-appointed tribunal banned Mr. Thaksin and more than 100 members of his party from participating in politics for five years. The Constitution was rewritten to increase the power of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Just two days before the election, the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly passed an internal security bill that grants the military the rights to detain citizens without trial for up to six months and to disband peaceful assemblies. The real test of the generals’ intentions will be how they respond to the results of yesterday’s elections. Preliminary polls last night showed the pro-Thaksin People Power Party with a strong lead, but short of an an outright majority. Many of the smaller parties are on good terms with the military and would be much more likely to ally with the Democrat Party, which placed a strong second.
A wild card is the possibility of voting fraud, which could disqualify candidates — or even entire parties — if they are found guilty by the powerful Election Commission. At the time of this writing, the Election Commission had more than 700 complaints of fraud or vote-buying relating to yesterday’s election. In addition, a guilty verdict in any of the outstanding cases against the PPP — which include allegations of vote buying and of illegally distributing a video of Mr. Thaksin as part of their campaign — could yet derail a PPP victory.
Much of the junta’s legitimacy stems from its perceived support from King Bhumibol. But at 80 years old, the King may not be around for much longer to provide that kind of stability. Which is all the more reason to cheer yesterday’s elections, and look forward to the junta making good on its promise to transfer power to democratically elected leaders.
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