Sunday, 2 February 2014

Derailed election in a divided Thailand

Voting was impossible in nine out of 77 provinces, and disrupted in nine others (including Bangkok). (Sources: The Nation and Greenlight Thailand)


After months of uncertainty, talks of delay, street protests and deadly violence (for background see previous blog post), Thailand's parliamentary snap election took place as scheduled on 2nd February 2014. The election was marred by a massive disruption campaign of the opposition People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), a conglomerate of the urban Bangkok middle class and rural southern Thais under the leadership of former Democrat party MP Suthep Thaugsuban, who had vowed to bring prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra's 'parliamentary dictatorship' to its knees.

According to information released by the Election Commission of Thailand, 10.8% of polling stations nationwide (10,139 of a total of 93,952) were not operational on election day. In nine out of Thailand's 77 provinces no voting was possible at all. All of these provinces are located in the country's South, the traditional stronghold of the opposition Democrat party, which had announced their election boycott earlier. In nine other provinces - including Bangkok - voting was partially disrupted. 488 out of the capital's 6200 polling stations were not operational. In total, up to 12 million of Thailand's 48 million eligible voters were estimated to be disenfranchised by the PDRC's campaign. Contrary to this, the polls went ahead smoothly in the North and Northeast, where Yingluck's Phuea Thai party enjoys widespread support.

In addition to a prolonged 'Bangkok Shutdown' through street protests, a barrage of misogynist attacks on prime minister Yingluck, and a plethora of judicial maneuvers, the anti-government protesters used diverse tactics to disable the electoral process:

1) Candidate registration was made impossible or severely hindered in several southern provinces and partially in Bangkok in late December and early January. This was in some places accompanied by severe violence. Since candidates for more than 5% of the seats were thus missing, this led to a situation where the required quorum for convening parliament could not be reached, even if voting proceeded as normal in all other places. At least 28 out of 500 seats are missing due to this tactic, while 16 seats are uncertain because candidates stood unopposed and would have to secure at least 20% of the votes in these constituencies get into parliament.

2) Advanced voting on 26 January 2014 was hindered by voter intimidation, physically blocking access to polling places, and by the fact that election officials had previously resigned. The election commission acted indecisively on this issue. Instead of working with security forces to ensure that advanced voting proceeded as planned, the commission continuously made headlines by suggesting a postponement of the election. Northern and northeastern provinces were with a few exceptions unaffected by these events.
Despite an online and physical intimidation campaign, voters still attempted to cast their early ballots, defying anti-government protesters and in some cases violent threats (see two examples here and here). This created a wave of memes on social media that framed these voters as heroes for democracy, who reclaimed their citizen rights against angry mobs of PDRC protesters. Arguably, the opposition movement lost the battle for international public opinion through these images.
In several instances, the blockage of polling places led to violent clashes between anti- and pro-government groups. An opposition movement leader was shot dead on advance voting day. This was merely one of a series of incidents in the lead-up to the election, such as explosions at a protest site, or opposing groups exchanging gunfire in Bangkok, to name just a few.

Depiction of 'heroes of the election' (ฮีโร่เลือกตั้ง), rendered as a cartoon on the basis of youtube videos and photographs that quickly became iconic (see here, here and here). (Source: Facebook


3) On election day, numerous polling places were incapacitated as a result of missing ballot papers - because protesters had prevented their delivery or had in some instances destroyed them. Consequentially, voters willing to cast their ballot improvised election materials in some polling places. They staged their own version of an election with impromptu booths and ballot papers - a crime under Thai law that could result in up to ten years imprisonment.
Other polling stations did not open due to the fact that no candidates at all were standing (see above), while still others were physically surrounded by anti-government protesters. Voters showing their ID cards as a symbol of their willingness to vote attempted to gain access to polling places and were in many cases hindered. Security forces prevented clashes between opposing groups in several locations.
Subsequently, angered voters flocked to police stations and filed complaints, lawsuits against the Election Commission and/or the PDRC, and attempted to fill out the necessary papers that would allow them to participate in by-elections.

---

The Election Commission has not released election results and plans to organize a re-run of advance voting on 23 February 2014. In addition, numerous by-elections will have to be organized for those constituencies that remained closed on election day. It will undoubtedly take time to sort out the administrative and legal challenges, given that the opposition is expected to call for an annulment of the election. The bigger riddle is how to evaluate the legitimacy of any incoming government, given the lower turnout, possible high percentage of 'No' votes, and the fact that the main opposition party boycotted the election. 

The violent incidents in the run-up to the election (at least ten fatalities and more than 500 injured) are a display of the deep rifts that separate Thailand along class, geographic, ethno/linguistic and ideological lines. It will certainly take more than elections to mend those rifts, or at least come to a minimum agreement on rules of the game. At the present moment, parts of the middle classes and parts of southern Thailand's rural population reject elections as a legitimate process for leadership selection. They insist on making anti-corruption reforms the priority and fiercely cling to the view that the majority of Thais (who support the current government) are easily duped by vote-buying or 'populist' policies. Although turnout for protests in Bangkok will now decrease in the short run, mobilization against elections and against the government is quite likely to happen again and again, until the grievances of these disenchanted minorities are taken seriously and they in turn re-enter electoral politics. Meanwhile, voters wonder why they are being deprived of their citizen rights and why an opposition that uses primarily extra-constitutional means should be taken seriously in the first place. In absence of a new social contract, some already contemplate a split of the country.



Max Grömping
Sydney, 3 February 2014

Max Grömping is a researcher for the Electoral Integrity Project at the University of Sydney. His current research focuses on the role of social media and domestic observers on electoral integrity. Prior to this, he lectured at Thammasat University, Thailand. 








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