Thailand’s democracy under siege

With protests and an election boycott, the February 2 elections are unlikely to change the status quo.

The Thai opposition has launched a campaign to block voting in a number of constituencies [AFP/Getty Images]

Thailand’s democracy is at a crossroads, as Thais go to the polls on February 2 with much resting on the outcome. These elections are critical to the country’s political future, even though they will not immediately resolve the current crisis.

The final results are unlikely to be known for weeks or even months; and in the end, legal challenges to the vote are more than likely to have the elections declared null and void. But the turnout of voters may yet prove to be something of a referendum on the political impasse paralysing the country. 

Bangkok has been brought to a virtual standstill over the past three months, as thousands of protestors blocked many of the city’s main junctions. They are demanding an end to the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party and the introduction of sweeping political reforms. Shinawatra is the youngest sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and later convicted, in absentia, of corruption. The protesters accuse her of being her brother’s pawn.   

The People’s Democratic Reform Committee supporting the protests is opposed to the election and is calling for a “no vote”. The protesters, led by a senior Democrat politician and parliamentarian, Suthep Thaungsuban, have vowed to disrupt the election.

Boycotting the vote

They have already blocked “advance voting” in many of the Democrats’ strongholds in Bangkok and the south of the country – selected polling stations opened on January 26 to allow absentee voting. Some two million voters had registered for the advance poll, and around 440,000 were unable to cast their votes. In the past few days, protesters have also prevented ballot papers being distributed to many polling stations in the capital and surrounding provinces.

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For fear of losing their democratic credentials, Thaungsuban has now told supporters not to obstruct the electoral process, but to protest near polling stations and urge voters not to cast their ballots. But many observers fear that the rank-and-file in the movement may get carried away on February 2 – as many were the week before.

This time round, government supporters and pro-election campaigners have also mobilised mobs to protect the polling stations and prevent vote disruption. Pro-vote vigilantes are reportedly set to be stationed in many Bangkok polling stations ready to protect voters who want to cast their ballot. Despite the deployment of nearly 140,000 security forces around the country – 8,000 in Bangkok alone – there are growing fears of increased violence, which may in turn deter some would-be voters.

Despite the best efforts of protest leaders, the election is set to go ahead on February 2 as planned. There are more than 90,000 polling stations throughout the country, and most will open their doors to the voters, unimpeded by the protesters. Bangkok – where there are over 6,600 polling stations – will be the main focus of the protestors’ efforts.

The electoral commission has warned that they expect as many as 10,000 polling stations – mainly in Bangkok – to be unable to function on election day. While it is yet unclear how many polling stations will be able to open, much of the country is likely to be unaffected. In many regions – especially in the north and north-east, where the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party has its strongest support – citizens will certainly exercise their right to vote.

But the actual outcome of the election will not be announced for weeks. The final result may take three to four months, according to one election commissioner, Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, who has been accused of siding with the protest. This is because a series of mini-polls and by-elections will have to be held to fulfil all legal requirements. Fresh polls will be opened in three weeks for those who were registered for advance voting but were unable to cast their ballots. Only after that are the results likely to be announced.

But the problems do not stop there. For the parliament to convene, there must be a 95 percent quorum of MPs, which constitutionally must happen 30 days after the election. There are 500 seats in the parliament; 375 elected directly and 125 allocated on the proportional basis of the overall vote.

There are already 28 southern constituencies where elections won’t be held because the opposition succeeded in blocking the registration of candidates. The election commission is yet to decide whether to re-open registration and schedule fresh polls in these constituencies.

There are also 16 others – in central and southern Thailand – where there is just a single candidate. In these cases, the candidate must still get at least 20 percent of the vote of all registered electors – not just those who turn out on the day. If turnout is low – which is highly likely – by-elections will have to be held, which will mean delays of several weeks or months.

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There will certainly be legal challenges to the election – the Democrats and the demonstration leaders have all already revealed their intentions to do so – and in the end the election is most likely to ruled void. This process will also take weeks or months.

Seeking a solution

So although Thailand’s election on February 2 is critical for the country’s political future, there will be no immediate remedy to the country’s current political crisis. With parliament almost certainly unable to meet within a month – and therefore unable to elect a new government – there will be a political vacuum.

In recent days, academics, lawyers, business leaders, and some significant parts of the media have been urging Thais to exercise their right to vote. In a private interview, Dr Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, an academic and a former Democrat MP, said that although he encourages the vote, this does not mean that he supports the government of the Pheu Thai Party. “It only means we support democracy and finding a way to solve the country’s political problems peacefully and constitutionally,” he explained.

For many, this is a referendum rather than an election; a strong turn-out – no matter who wins – will send a strong message to the warring parties that Thais are sick of the political impasse that has dogged the country for nearly a decade. As Niratcha Sunthonsak, a young university student told me: “It is time the silent majority spoke out.” Sunthonsak plans to vote but does not support either the Pheu Thai party or the Democrats.

A strong vote will mean Thaungsuban will no longer be able to claim that the street movement has the support of the Thai people. And the next step will have to be national reconciliation and political reform. Of course, who will oversee that process, who will be involved, and the agenda of any talks, will have to be decided in an inclusive manner.  

Larry Jagan is a freelance correspondent and political analyst based in Bangkok. He has been reporting for radio, television, online services and newspapers on Asian affairs or from Asia for forty years. He was the former news and current affairs editor at the BBC World Service and a Myanmar correspondent.