Thai poll results thrown into doubt

Asia Time Online - Daily News

Jan 9, 2008

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK – Thailand’s election monitoring body is under scrutiny as the country is gripped by uncertainty over last month’s general election result and whether the new Parliament will be able to hold its first session as constitutionally required on January 23.

According to Thai law, at least 95% of the 480 seats that were up for grabs at the polls must be approved by the Election Commission (EC) for the new parliament to convene. But the EC is still well short of endorsing the required 456 parliamentary

seats as it conducts investigations into electoral fraud allegations. By the end of last week, the EC had approved only 397 winners of the total 480 parliamentary seats. Of the 83 seats now under investigation, 65 were winners who contested for the People’s Power Party (PPP), the reincarnation of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s disbanded Thai Rak Thai party.

PPP won the most seats at last month’s poll, the first since the September 2006 military takeover, by notching 233 seats, just short of an outright majority. The PPP outpaced the runner-up Democrat Party, which won 165 seats. Crucially, neither party won enough votes to form a government unilaterally, though at first blush it appeared the PPP had the inside track to leading a coalition.

Now, with the EC’s recent announcement of its ongoing investigations, speculation is swirling over which party will be able to woo a handful of small- and medium-sized parties into a coalition. This hitherto unforeseen hurdle to forming the next government loomed particularly large over the weekend, following a veiled threat made by an outspoken EC member.

If protestors critical of the EC’s work demonstrated in front its Bangkok headquarters, the commission would close its office and parliament would not be able to convene, according to commissioner Sodsri Satayatham, who was quoted saying as much in the local press. Sodsri’s threat stemmed from a protest held on Friday by over 10,000 PPP supporters in Buriram province against the EC’s decision to disqualify three PPP winners from that eastern province. The influential Council of State, a legal advisory body, sided with the EC’s decision on Monday.

Among the main complaints the EC has taken under investigation are charges of alleged vote-buying, a widespread phenomenon in Thailand since the early 1980s, where candidates pay cash to voters ahead of the polls in exchange for their ballots.

At December’s poll, some rural voters were given 200 baht (US$6) in unmarked “white envelopes”, while the local party campaigners, or vote canvassers, were given 500 baht for every vote secured, a Thai official working for an independent poll monitor, the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), told Inter Press Service (IPS).

“There was vote-buying in Bangkok, too. One party gave 800 baht per vote to get 500 votes at one polling station,” the official claimed.

Questionable neutrality
Still, the EC’s attempt to secure a free and fair poll is being hampered by questions over the commission’s own neutrality. Critics note that its five members were appointed by the military junta that staged the 2006 coup and later appointed a civilian government. The commission’s pro-junta bias was according to some critics put on display ahead of the election when it refused to investigate charges lodged by the PPP that the junta had drafted a covert plan to undermine its campaign. The EC threw out the complaint on the basis that the plan was never implemented.

During the same period, the EC also rejected requests by experienced, independent election monitors to help 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 organizations 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, 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 army general and former supreme commander of the Thai armed forces, told IPS. “This is not neutral.”

The proportionately high number of PPP candidates who face disqualification following last month’s poll is also fueling criticism. “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.”

According to independent election monitors who spoke with IPS, PPP candidates were not the only ones distributing money to poor voters before the poll. In some areas of northeastern Thailand, Puea Pandin, a political party that reportedly had the junta’s behind-the-scenes support, though party executives have repeatedly denied any affiliation, allegedly distributed “more money than the other parties to villagers”, contended one monitor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the northern province of Chiang Rai, a senior army officer had allegedly “ordered” soldiers to vote for the Chart Thai party, PPP’s main rival in the area, according to a pre-election ANFREL report. “[These allegations] do not appear to be vigorously investigated by the police or [EC],” according to the report.

Some political analysts now wonder if the EC has been drawn into a junta plot to prevent the PPP, which has been openly promised to restore Thaksin and 110 of his former party’s top executives political rights, from forming the next government. During the 15 months since toppling Thaksin, who currently lives in exile in London, the junta, the conservative bureaucracy and palace loyalists have closed ranks to prevent the ousted premier’s return to politics.

Through constitutional reforms aimed at promoting democracy, the EC was created a decade ago as one of three new major independent bodies – the other two being the national human rights commission and the national counter-corruption commission. Prior to that, elections were held under the authority of the powerful, and often politicized, interior ministry. However, the EC’s impartiality first came under fire after Thaksin appointed perceived close associates to the body ahead of the 2005 polls, which his party handily won.

The current EC’s legitimacy has also suffered because its five members were appointed by the military government, as well as due to public spats and accusations leveled between the commission’s members. Barely a week after the December poll, commissioner Somchai Juengprasert described without explaining an unidentified EC colleague as “a mad person”. Somchai, who is in charge of investigations, last week voiced his desire to leave the body and return to his previous work as a judge.

(Inter Press Service with editing by Asia Times Online)

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