Thailand Runs a Laughable Farce of an Election

The long-awaited certification of Thailand’s election, which makes it certain that junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha will return as prime minister, makes it doubtful whether the new regime, the beneficiary of a rigged election, can earn acceptability either at home or abroad and bring back much-needed confidence that is imperative for an economic turn-around.

The military regime may be capable of extending its power beyond the election by means of constitutional provisions and arbitrary power. But the election is a charade that owes little to the idea of parliamentary democracy.

As expected, the Pheu Thai Party, linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in self-exile since 2008, won most Lower House seats with 136 -- which in rational parliamentary democracies would give it the right to seek a coalition to govern. Pheu Thai was followed by the junta-aligned Palang Pracharat Party with 115 and the youthful Future Forward Party (FFP) with 80. The Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest political party, has had to swallow its pride with only 52.

The official disclosure of the results by the EC came amid numerous allegations of flawed election tallies by the commission, which apparently was plagued with poor management and inefficiency. The commission subsequently failed to explain allegations of irregularities in vote tabulation including the invalidation of an astonishing 1.9 million ballots. Ballots cast in some provinces far exceeded the voter turnout. The recounts, three in all, in Nakorn Pathom Province, for instance, produced three different results.

The commission’s shortcomings were compounded by confusion and indecision as to which formula should be used to tabulate partylist MPs. In the end, it opted for a controversial formula which awarded smaller parties that did not meet the electoral threshold set forth in Article 91 (4) and Article 128 (4) of the Constitution. This resulted in the loss of 600,000 votes, an equivalent of 7 MPs, by the Future Forward Party, which has become the darling of Thailand’s young and which belongs to the pro-democracy front.

Along with the Pheu Thai Party, it has led the attempt to prevent the continuation of an authoritarian regime headed by Prayuth.

The results of the election have sprung no surprises as they were played out as choreographed in the 2017 constitution and its enabling laws. The constitution was crafted by a junta-appointed drafting committee with the prime intention of maintaining the junta’s stranglehold on power for a foreseeable future.

The constitution was hurriedly bulldozed through a referendum without free public debate or scrutiny by the opposition. Its main thrust was to weaken the fully elected 500-member legislative branch while strengthening a malleable judicial branch and “independent” organs such as the election commission and the counter corruption commission which are anything but.

The political parties, with which the people could interact, were also weakened with the aim of denying the dominant Pheu Thai Party which still won a majority in the Parliament as shown despite being denied even a single party-list MP.

To guarantee the continuation of the junta’s grip on power, the constitution provided for a wholly junta-appointed 250-member Senate to give a nod to the junta-nominated candidate as prime minister in a 375-member bicameral Parliament.

On the other hand, the Palang Pracharat Party, of which Prayuth is the candidate for Prime Minister, only needed 125 votes in the Lower House to secure his prime ministerial seat as the 250-member Senate duly appointed by the junta is expected to vote for him en masse in a joint parliamentary sitting.

As an added bonus, the Palang Pracharat Party could well bring the Democrat Party, the Phumjai Thai Party, the Chart Thai Pattana Party and other smaller parties into its fold to form a razor-thin majority in the Lower House to afford some measure of stability for the government.

The junta’s attempt to rig the election didn’t end with the writing of the constitution and the election laws. Armed with the arbitrary power provided in Article 44 of the interim constitution, the junta made good use of the state apparatus during the pre-election campaign to harass opposing politicians, mainly from the Pheu Thai Party, in many constituencies, while intimidating people who supported rival pro-democracy political parties which were running against the pro-junta parties.

One of Pheu Thai Party’s leaders, Snoh Thienthong, complained that he was intimidated by local authorities when the police surrounded his house in Sakaew Province where his son was running under the Pheu Thai Party banner.

The pro-military parties had a head start in campaigning even before the announcement of the decree for the holding of the general election. Electioneering was already in full swing long before that and was often disguised as “roving Cabinet meetings” in provincial towns with the injection of state funds into local development projects as well as the “Pracharat Project” from which the junta’s nominated party, the Palang Pracharat, derived its name.

Just three weeks before the general election on March 24, the Constitutional Court dissolved the Thai Raksa Chart Party, one of the offshoots of the Pheu Thai Party, on the heels of the controversial nomination of Princess Ubolratana as prime ministerial candidate. It is generally believed that the court’s decision was at the behest of the junta and the ‘establishment’ comprising Thai oligarchy and big business conglomerates.

The loss of Pheu Thai’s sibling party dealt a considerable blow to Pheu Thai and the pro-democracy front in their effort to prevent the pro-military political parties from winning the election and extending the junta’s stranglehold on power after the election.

The government under Prayuth had the prerogative in employing the full weight of state power and state funds to help it win. There were accusations that the regime was giving free handouts just days before the election. In addition to allegations of vote buying, military-controlled state agencies are said to have purchased polling stations outright as this was considered more effective than vote buying.

This was done by paying election committee members in charge of the polling station and the polling centers throughout the country. These committee members could numerically alter or falsify the election results in favor of the pro-junta parties, particularly Palang Pracharat.

Vote buying was also allegedly supplemented by recruiting local administrators such as village headmen or elders, heads of district and sub-district administration organizations in various provinces to cooperate with the military government by means of cash incentive to coax the electorates to vote for Palang Pracharat. It is alleged that each sub-district was given a reward of Bt100,000 in cash for its service. There are numerous allegations of soldiers being deployed across the country for indiscriminate “carpet cash handouts” to induce people to vote for pro-military parties.

The Democrat Party also complained that vote buying in southern provinces was rampant the night before the poll.

Although the election commission assigned representatives at the local levels to oversee the ballot counting, it is believed that they turned a blind eye to the above-mentioned malpractice.

Despite the attempts to rig the election at the local level, it still took considerable horse-trading, in addition to legitimizing inconsequential political parties, to shoehorn the junta and its allies into parliament. It is difficult to see how the junta can claim any legitimacy from this election.

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok