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Testing Thai democracy

January 30, 2014 • By Adhy Aman
Thailand’s democracy will be tested yet again. On Sunday, 2 February 2014, the world will witness yet another general elections in Thailand. The elections were called in response to the constant street protests that have taken place since November 2013 by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) supported by, among others, the People’s Democratic Force to overthrow Thaksinism (Pefot).
From the beginning of her tenure Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been accused of being controlled by her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup d’etat in 2006 after five years in office and subsequently convicted of corruption in absentia. Thaksin’s party won the last five general elections held since 2001, but the protesters are indicating their disillusion with him and his followers, and are therefore demanding a non-elected people’s council instead of an elected legislature.
The PDRC and its affiliated groups (which are referred to in the media as ‘anti-government protesters’) have been obstructing candidates from registering themselves to run and, more recently, blocking voters from reaching polling stations for early voting as well as shutting those stations down. These actions have attracted international attention. The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), for instance, has stated that such behaviour ‘gravely violates the voters’ civil and political rights’. Ahead of the 2011 general elections, International IDEA in cooperation with Mahidol University supported the drafting of a which all parties signed. According to Dr Gothom Arya of Mahidol University, the Code of Conduct is meant to enhance the credibility of elections and minimize the risk of violence. It is hoped that the spirit of the Code of Conduct continues to exist in this Sunday’s elections.

Integrity of elections

Indeed, the true test lies with the integrity of the elections and thus, the legitimacy of its outcome. The Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, headed by Kofi Anan and facilitated by International IDEA, defines elections with integrity as those based on the democratic principles of universal suffrage and political equality. As such, there should be no barriers to universal and equal political participation. If voters cannot participate, as reports indicate with early voting in Thailand, then integrity of the elections can be said to be compromised.

Compulsory voting and ‘No’ vote

The news is reporting that the protesters would like to delegitimize the election results by keeping a low voter turnout by both obstructing voters and also calling on their supporters not to go out and vote. This is an interesting call considering voting is compulsory in Thailand. Legally, a low turnout does not automatically annul the elections. Moreover, those who did not vote may be taken off the voters’ list if they could not present an acceptable reason for not voting within 7 days. This would lead to more troubles.
Along with compulsory voting came the ‘No’ vote facility, which is globally known as the ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) vote (existing in India, Greece, Ukraine, Spain and Colombia). In Thailand, there is a box on the ballot that voters mark if they want to reject the elections or do not like any of the parties/candidates found on the ballot. The ‘No’ vote is another opportunity to deny the leading political party from claiming victory as a candidate must achieve 20% of valid votes and must have a greater number votes than the ‘No’ votes cast in their constituency. So if the protesters can ensure a high number of ‘No’ votes, insufficient members of parliament may be elected, thereby prompting uncertainty.

Potential annulment

Another test to Thailand’s democracy is the potential annulment of the elections by the Constitutional Court. This electoral justice body annulled the April 2006 general elections, citing irregularities, and may do the same again if a complaint is filed. The anti-government protest leaders have predicted this outcome, which is why they are saying it is pointless to vote as the elections will be annulled anyway. If the elections were annulled, based on precedent, fresh elections will have to be held, but it would mean the situation would go back to ‘square one’ as the protests continue.
There is no easy way out of these tests of Thai democracy. Elections are generally accepted in many countries as a cure for political disputes. Unfortunately, Thailand’s own complex political realities could prove otherwise.
Demonstrations in Bangkok, December 2013 Photos: Leena Rikkilä Tamang / IDEA
Demonstrations in Bangkok, December 2013

Demonstrations in Bangkok, December 2013 Photos: Leena Rikkilä Tamang / IDEA

Photos: Leena Rikkilä Tamang / IDEA

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About the authors

Adhy Aman
Senior Programme Manager, Asia and the Pacific
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