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Thailand’s Election Day: Overall, the Voters Win, But Chaos Ahead

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 3, 2014

Election commission officials display ballot papers to the media while counting votes at a polling station in Bangkok on February 2, 2014. (Athit Perawongmetha/ Courtesy Reuters) Election commission officials display ballot papers to the media while counting votes at a polling station in Bangkok on February 2, 2014. (Athit Perawongmetha/ Courtesy Reuters)

Despite protesters blocking voting in southern provinces and many parts of Bangkok, and despite several serious incidents of violence in Bangkok, including a gunfight in the streets, the Sunday election actually was somewhat more peaceful than expected, and turnout slightly higher than expected. The relatively high turnout, the lack of widespread violence that protest leaders surely hoped would erupt, and the fact that heads of the armed forces quietly voted, suggests that overall, Sunday was a net loss for the anti-government PDRC, though hardly a sign that the Thai government is now in the clear.

The Bangkok Post has a fine summary here.

An important point made in this article is that, with the relatively high turnout and with the voters surely re-electing the government, the PDRC will now have to push to overturn a new electoral mandate, which will make the protesters look even more anti-democratic than they already do. This is surely saying something, but I agree that pushing to overturn a government that is basically re-elected will be harder; though I still think that the PDRC and Thailand’s elite institutions stand a good chance of fatally weakening Puea Thai. In addition, the fact that the government was able to keep open around 85 to 90 percent of polling stations, also a higher figure than was expected, will give the election more power, and the victors greater legitimacy. Though PDRC leaders have quietly—and not so quietly—pushed the military to openly take sides against the government, and though I believe senior military leaders would like to see the back of Puea Thai, the voting by armed forces leaders suggests that the military is too divided to take a stronger stance against the government, which is a positive sign for Thailand’s democracy.

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  • Posted by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

    I am amazed how Joshua could err in so many points in his one short paragraph about Thailand’s general election on 2 Feb. Let me state my counter-points:

    Protesters need not block voting in 9 southern provinces – because polling in these provinces had been stopped even before voting started on 2 Feb due to one of the following reasons: lack of election equipment and/or ballot sheets, lack of election personnel (nine needed in each polling station), fear of violence. Six of the 9 southern provinces in fact had no election candidates. There were only voting for party for the proportional representation. But anti-Yingluck protesters stopped post offices in three key southern cities from distributing the ballot sheets.

    All in all, the Election Commission reported that 83,813 polling stations out of 93,953 (89%) could conduct the voting normally and without incident.

    In Bangkok, a clash on 1 Feb led to the closure of all polling stations in Lak Si district. Noisy confrontations between anti-Yingluck protesters and supporters of Yingluck led to closure of all polling stations four more Bangkok districts in Din Daeng, Bang Kapi, Ratchathevi, and Bung Kum. But no actual violence; just lots of noisy insults at one another.

    It should emphasized that those who wanted to vote, could vote where their polling stations in Bangkok and elsewhere (those 83,813 polling stations) had not been closed.

    The turnout is “slightly higher than expected”? In fact it was very low: in Bangkok, the Election Commission says it was around 26%, and this included those who showed up just to “Vote No”. Nationwide, the turnout was around 46% (not including the problematic nine southern provinces where polling had been stopped ). Thirty-five provinces had 50% or higher voter turnout; 33 provinces had less than 50%. The normal voter turnout in Thailand’s general elections has been around 70%.

    However, we should not read too much into these numbers.

    Just consider this : The Democrat Party boycotted the general election; this means about 30% of eligible voters who support the main opposition party would not go to vote this time. And in all Thai general elections, about 25-30% of eligible voters don’t vote at all. Moreover, the Bangkok Shutdown and National Picnic Day campaigns in Bangkok also convinced a large number of eligible voters (especially those in Bangkok) to shun voting (No Vote), or to cast protest votes (Vote No) in case they need to retain political rights. Voting in Thailand is optional. But those who fail to vote without any legitimate reasons temporarily lose some political rights, such as standing for election, or signing a petition. They regain these rights if they vote in the next election of any kind (there will be a Senate election in March).

    One serious error that I find astonishing and even irresponsible on Joshua’s part is the claim that the protest leaders had hoped for “widespread violence” to erupt on 2 Feb. One just need to look who have been at the receiving/suffering end of the past violence. In fact right now the funeral of one protest leader is ongoing in Bangkok. He was shot and killed on a busy street in Bangkok in broad day light in an ambush by the Red Shirts on 26 Jan. Numerous video clips of the attack have been shown on social media. But the police could only say they need more eye-witnesses to testify before any arrest could be made.

    The overall outcome according to Joshua was “a net loss for the anti-government PDRC”. Really? But Suthep and his supporters are also claiming “victory” because of the below normal average voter turnout.

    Any conclusion is premature. In fact the general election is still incomplete: new elections have to be held for the nine southern provinces and for the five Bangkok districts where voting had been stopped; a second round of early voting has been scheduled on 23 Feb for about 2 million voters who had registered for early voting on 26 Jan but couldn’t vote because of disruptions by anti-Yingluck protesters. More by-elections may also be needed if Pheu Thai Party candidates who won in this general election are found guilty for their past violations of the Constitution and thus will be barred from public office. Yingluck herself is also facing corruption probe in the controversial rice scheme. If found guilty, she will also be disqualified from holding any public office.

    On top of all these new elections and by-elections, the Democrat Party is going to challenge the constitutionality of the 2 Feb general election on various legal grounds.

    Meanwhile, no final election results can be officially declared just yet. The distribution of 125 seats in the House of Representatives based on the proportion of votes each party received has to wait until all the necessary new elections have been held. The new House of Representatives cannot open to elect a new head of government any time soon. The House needs 475 MPs (95% of 500 MPs) to convene its opening session. It will take months to complete all the necessary new elections and to settle the legal challenge on the constitutionality of the general election itself.

    In my opinion, the best hope and way forward is to see further exposure of corruption in the Yingluck Administration, especially in the rice scheme. Until now, how much rice stock the government is holding remains a closely guarded “national secret”! How much loss has been incurred is not yet known, because the rice stock has not been sold. But why not unloading the rice stock quickly and pay the angry farmers promptly? Our suspicion is that either too much of the rice in government stock is sub-standard or a significant part of it is nonexistent. Too much cheating by all parties concerned, including the rich farmers. Subsistent farmers have no surplus paddy to sell the government.

    Yingluck is very fond of reminding the international community that she came from election. It’s about time that she also learns that elected representatives have to earn public acceptance and recognition of legitimacy by honestly serving public interest and advancing national interest. Failing in this, elected representatives are and will be held accountable. Winning another round of general election cannot erase the responsibility and the guilt of past abuse of power and corruption.

    And lest we forget: Attempts of the ruling Pheu Thai Party to ram through Parliament the controversial amnesty bill to white wash past abuse of power and corruption last year started this chain of chaotic events in Thailand.

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