Thai politicians walking on eggshells

criticizing control over passing the August draft constitution 
by: Aaron Caley   

If you are running for office in Thailand’s December elections and are thinking of, say, playing a campaign theme song or making a stump speech from the back of a truck, you better rethink your strategy. Those kinds of activities may be common to almost any election anywhere, but under severe limits put on campaign activities by Thailand’s Election Commission this week, they could get you disqualified.

The rules are causing political parties to scramble to cancel events that might get trouble them in violation of the new rules and dampening hopes that the country’s first election since the September 2006 coup will be anything other than a return to the days of managed democracy.

The long list of dos and don’ts is tantamount to putting a straitjacket on politicians and provides the Election Commission with plenty of material to disqualify MPs who win in the December 23 election. The rules coincide with the revelation this week that the army has drafted a plan to undermine the People’s Power Party (PPP), which comprises many candidates loyal to deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Under the new rules politicians can be disqualified for a number of offenses, including playing music at a campaign event; appearing on a political talk show on television or radio; putting up campaign posters in unauthorized locations; making a campaign speech from a vehicle or truck; attending charity events; or participating in any public forum that is not organized by the Election Commission.

The Election Commission says the rules are designed to make the election fairer by giving equal time to all parties, big or small. But politicians and analysts say the rules will have the opposite effect.

“Big parties won’t be able to take advantage of their position, but small parties will also be at a disadvantage because they cannot make themselves known,” Gotham Arya, a former election commissioner and member of the military-appointed legislature, said in an interview. “The rules are too strict and don’t benefit anybody.”

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva abruptly called off a speech at a luncheon hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce planned two months in advance after discovering it would violate the new campaign rules. News outlets and universities were also forced to cancel political forums that included representatives from only the major parties.

The Democrats and other political parties planned to send formal complaints to the Election Commission today. Media representatives said they would do the same.

“A lot of the rules are not practical for an election,” said Sirichoke Sopha, a member of the Democrat Party’s executive committee. “The Election Commission does not have experience running an election. Hopefully they will loosen some of the rules after getting advice from certain political parties.”

The rules particularly hurt new candidates trying to make their names known. Of the major parties, only the Democrat, Chat Thai and Mahachon parties ran in the last legitimate election in January 2005. Since then a host of parties have popped up after an army-appointed court dissolved Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party in May, the largest of which is the PPP.

“The regulations make it too hard for new candidates to present themselves to the people,” said Pimuk Simaroj, a PPP member who was a former spokesman for Thai Rak Thai. “Candidates can’t put up posters, can’t go on television, can’t do much of anything.”

The Election Commission is picking up where it left off in the constitution referendum last August, which passed amid a low turnout and higher-than-expected “No” vote. In that election, some commissioners tasked with ensuring the vote was fair also helped to write the document. The commission allowed the state to use a massive public relations campaign to urge a “Yes” vote ‑ including linking approval of the charter with love for the country’s revered king ‑ and took steps to suppress “No” vote campaign activities.

The stringent campaign rules come as another blow to the Election Commission’s credibility during its short time in office. Last month, the respected non-government watchdog, the People’s Network for Elections, cut all ties with the election regulator after commissioner Sodsri Satayathum failed to apologize for accusing it of financial misconduct. The group vehemently denied the allegations and requested a formal apology, but the Election Commission, while conceding the remarks were inappropriate, refused to apologize for the remarks of an individual member.

As the election nears, fairness concerns extend beyond an overzealous Election Commission. Military-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is heading up the Interior Ministry, which is overseeing the vote, and coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin is leading a committee to ensure that vote buying is eliminated. As part of his efforts, Sonthi ordered the Internal Security Operations Command, a wide-reaching military apparatus, to use soldiers to help voters “understand democracy.”

Last month the junta lifted martial law in 11 of 35 provinces, but reinstated it in three northeastern ones ‑ Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom and Mudahan ‑ that voted heavily against the constitution in the August referendum. Those three provinces ranked in the top four among “No” votes of Thailand’s 76 provinces, each with more than 70% opposing the charter.

This week PPP party leader Samak Sundaravej also revealed leaked documents allegedly from the junta that order state-owned broadcasters to cast PPP in a negative light and spread rumors about the party. The documents also reportedly call for a campaign alleging that PPP wants to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential one—a move that would be seen as undercutting Thailand’s highly popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Surayud this week acknowledged that the papers exist but said they contain no malicious content about PPP and refer simply to “national security” matters. Still, that explanation didn’t sit well with everyone.

“At least the Election Commission should launch some sort of fact-finding investigation into this matter to stop all activities of this sort,” said Gotham, the former election commissioner. “The state cannot try to stop PPP at all costs or the election will not be fair.”