POLITICS-THAILAND: Uncertainty Over Parliament Reopening


By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jan 7 (IPS) – Thailand’s election monitoring body is under close scrutiny as the country is gripped by uncertainty over whether the new parliament will be allowed to hold its first session as scheduled on Jan 23.

This hitherto unforeseen hurdle loomed large over the weekend, following a veiled threat made by an outspoken member of the election commission (EC). If protestors critical of the EC’s work demonstrate in front its Bangkok headquarters, the commission will close its office, Sodsri Satayatham, the commissioner, was quoted saying by the Sunday edition of the ‘Bangkok Post’ newspaper.

‘’With officials unable to carry out their tasks, parliament would not be able to convene,’’ she added of the 480-seat legislature, whose members were elected at the first parliamentary elections since the September 2006 coup. The poll was held on Dec. 23.

According to this South-east Asian nation’s law, at least 95 percent of the seats that were up for grabs at the general elections should be approved by the EC for the parliament to open its doors for a new session. But the EC is still well short of endorsing the required 456 seats of parliamentarians that had won the ballot without resorting to illegal means.

By the end of last week, the EC had approved 397 winners, consequently enabling the newly elected legislators to collect their official badges to sit in the Lower House. Under investigation are 83 results, of which 65 are of winners who contested for the People Power Party (PPP), which won the most seats at the December poll, 233.

Sodsri’s threat stemmed from a protest held Friday by over 10,000 PPP supporters in Buri Ram against the EC disqualifying three PPP winners from that eastern province. Among the main complaints the EC is investigating are chargers of alleged vote-buying, a common phenomenon in Thailand since the early 1980s, where candidates pay cash ahead of the polls to rural and urban voters in exchange for their ballots.

At December’s poll, some rural areas voters were given 200 baht (six US) dollars in unmarked ‘’white envelops,’’ while the local party campaigners, or vote canvassers, were give 500 baht (15 US dollars) for every vote secured, a Thai official working for an independent poll monitor, the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), told IPS. ‘’There was vote buying in Bangkok, too. One party gave 800 bahts (24 dollars) per vote to get 500 votes at one polling station.’’

Yet the EC’s attempt to secure a free and fair poll is being hampered by questions over the commission’s own neutrality on many fronts. Its five members were appointed by the military junta that staged Thailand’s 18th putsch in 2006, driving out of office the twice-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The commission’s pro-junta bias was on display ahead of the poll, when it refused to investigate charges made by the PPP that the junta had drafted a plan to undermine the PPP’s election campaign.

During the same period, the EC rejected requests by seasoned election monitors in the country to ensure a climate of neutrality at all levels of the polling process. ‘’At a meeting with the elections commission, we requested that there should be neutral organisations and observers to ensure that the election will be free and fair,’’ said Saiyud Kerdphol, secretary-general of the People’s Network for Elections in Thailand (P-NET), a local non-governmental group. ‘’But the commission rejected this proposal.’’

‘’Village chiefs, who are very politically involved at the local level, and officials from the Ministry of the Interior were used to monitor work at the polling stations,’’ Saiyud, a retired general and former supreme commander of the Thai armed forces, told IPS. ‘’This is not neutral.’’

The high number of PPP candidates who face disqualification following last month’s poll is also fuelling some criticism of the EC. ‘’During the previous elections, the number of election-fraud cases the EC investigated was often in proportion to the number of seats each party won. It looked fair to all parties,’’ said Gotham Arya, a former member of the EC. ‘’But this time there are large number of PPP seats being investigated and less so for the other parties. This lack of proportion is a serious issue of concern.’’

In fact, as independent election monitors confirmed to IPS, the PPP’s candidates were not the only ones distributing money to poorer voters on the eve of the poll, often described here as ‘’the night of barking dogs’’. In some communities in north-eastern Thailand, Puea Pandin (For the Motherland), a political party that reportedly had the blessings of the junta, allegedly distributed ‘’more money than the other parties to villagers,’’ said one monitor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the northern province of Chiang Rai, there were reports that a senior army officer had allegedly ‘’ordered’’ soldiers to vote for the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) party, PPP’s main rival in the area, revealed ANFREL in a pre-election report. ‘’(But these allegations) do not appear to be vigorously investigated by the police or ECT (elections commission of Thailand).’’

Consequently, questions are being raised by some analysts if the EC has been drawn into a plot being masterminded by the junta and this kingdom’s entrenched elite to prevent the PPP, which has been openly sympathetic to the ousted premier Thaksin, from forming the next government.

During the 15 months since getting rid of Thaksin, who currently lives in exile in London, the junta, the conservative bureaucracy, sections of the media and palace loyalists closed ranks to portray Thaksin as a political villain and prevent him and his supporters reclaiming the country’s political leadership.

The EC was created a decade ago as one of three major independent bodies –- the others being a human rights commission and a counter corruption commission -– to help strength Thailand’s nascent democracy. Prior to that, elections were conducted under the authority of the powerful interior ministry.

The current EC’s credibility has also suffered due to public spats and accusations levelled between members of the commission. Barely a week after the December poll, Somchai Juengprasert, a commissioner, reportedly described a colleague as ‘’a mad person.’’ It was in response to an announcement made earlier by the outspoken Sodsri on the EC’s plans to investigate election malpractice.


Thai politics

Jan 7th 2008
From the Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire

The election result is called into question

A sweeping probe into alleged election fraud and a legal case against the country’s leading political party suggest that the military backers of Thailand’s September 2006 coup are now trying to overturn the result of the December 23rd general election. The People Power Party (PPP) linked to Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister ousted in the coup, won by far the most seats of any party in the election, supporting the theory that the investigation is a none-too-subtle attempt by the coup-makers to ensure that Thaksin’s allies do not return to power. The moves against the PPP also underline the extent to which post-coup Thai politics remains polarised between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces. Tension between the two camps will remain a major political difficulty for the country even if the latest challenges to the PPP do not substantially alter the election result.

The PPP is the successor to the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party led by Thaksin. The TRT dominated the political scene during Thaksin’s premiership but it was dissolved in May last year after being found guilty of electoral fraud. The TRT was inseparably associated with Thaksin, and the party’s dissolution—for its conduct during the April 2006 parliamentary elections and subsequent by-elections—was widely interpreted as politically motivated. This theory is certainly consistent with the coup leaders’ manifest ambitions to dismantle the former prime minister’s political empire. The problem for the generals, however, is that the TRT did not really die; it just resumed activity under a different name. Although Thaksin remains in self-imposed exile and is not the PPP’s formal leader, the PPP contains many of his allies and has made no secret of its loyalty to the former prime minister. This is the source of the problems the PPP now faces, as the military-backed interim government is anxious to prevent what it regards as a proxy for Thaksin and the TRT from forming the next government.

The military doesn’t want to see the PPP in power

There was always a risk that the generals would try to reverse the result of the December 23rd general election, for example by disqualifying the PPP, if the party did too well. This is what now appears to be happening. On January 3rd the election commission announced an investigation into 83 of the victorious candidates in the parliamentary election. Of these, some 65 are PPP members, lending credence to the theory that the interim government is trying to use allegations of electoral fraud to disqualify a large number of PPP candidates. The PPP won a provisional 233 out of 480 seats. The disqualification of 65 of its members could fundamentally shift the balance of power in the new legislature, probably in favour of the anti-Thaksin Democrat Party (DP), which won 165 seats. However, as it currently seems unlikely that the PPP will in fact lose all 65 of its seats under investigation, it will remain difficult for the military to keep the party out of power. Still, if the gap between the number of seats held by the DP and by the PPP narrows, smaller parties—some of which are undoubtedly opportunistic—could begin to find the DP more attractive as a coalition partner. There is little doubt that the military would prefer to see the DP, rather than the PPP, form the next government. It is also worth noting the importance of smaller parties as kingmakers in the new post-election environment; if the PPP were to lose no seats as a result of the probe and if all the smaller parties sided with it, the resulting coalition would have around 315 seats.

In this context, perhaps a greater threat to the PPP’s hopes of leading the next government is the possibility of dissolution. The DP has filed legal complaints with the Supreme Court alleging that the PPP is an illegal proxy for Thaksin and also that the party broke election rules by distributing videos of Thaksin during the election campaign. The Supreme Court is due to rule on the allegations in mid-January, and there is the potential for the PPP to suffer a similar fate to the TRT if it is found guilty.

Stand-off between the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps

Whether or not the military really plans to go ahead with such a provocative move is uncertain. The public has tired of the interim government and Thaksin remains hugely popular in many parts of the country. The annulment of the election results or the disbanding of the PPP could bring protesters out in number, exacerbating political tensions. The military has also pledged to respect the opinion of the people by honouring the election result, but whether it is prepared to accept a result that so clearly runs counter to its anti-Thaksin agenda is less certain. Victory for the PPP is a humiliating rebuff for the military and its intervention in politics, retrospectively devaluing the September 2006 coup. If a pro-Thaksin party returned to power, it could also create worries among the generals about retribution or legal action against them. This could encourage the military to take heavy-handed measures against the PPP and its supporters, despite the risks of a popular backlash.

The situation could soon become even more delicate for both sides—Thaksin’s supporters and the generals—given the former prime minister’s recent announcement of his interest in returning to Thailand. Although Thaksin has claimed that he will not seek to return to politics, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which a PPP-led government welcomed him back to the country and in which Thaksin then re-emerged as the pre-eminent political leader. The DP’s petitioning of the Supreme Court only goes as far as trying to prevent Thaksin from running Thai politics from behind the scenes, but the former prime minister’s opponents must also fear that, if the situation is conducive to it, he may try to become prime minister again.

Both sides of this stand-off contribute to the politically explosive atmosphere. The movement to oust Thaksin brought protesters onto the streets en masse. But Thaksin still has many supporters, so efforts to prevent his return could have a similar effect. The generals’ ability to judge the public mood on these matters seems imperfect, at best, if the PPP’s election successes are anything to go by. The result is that Thailand is likely to endure further political turmoil centring on the tussle between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces. The election revealed that the nation remains divided between the rural masses, who liked Thaksin’s populist pro-poor economic policies, and the urban middle class. Until a political leader can appeal to both constituencies, and offer policies tailored to their needs, the impasse is unlikely to change and the resulting political tensions will remain.



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