As Thailand’s 2019 election approaches, some in the country have begun to call for foreign observation of the country’s polls, scheduled for February 24. In a partisan split, Thailand’s Election Commission has somewhat supported the notion of foreign observers, partially because the country has had observation in the past. Foreign monitors have been present in Thai elections since 2003.
The ruling junta has been quick to dismiss calls for the European Union to observe the February poll, saying that the country had many years of experience holding elections and did not need the interference of the international community. Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai later had to clarify a controversial statement that seemed to indicate that Thailand would reject international monitors. The question now is whether Thailand will allow foreign observers and whether they are needed. The answer to the latter is a resounding yes.
Since 1932, Thailand, has held more than 25 elections, but has a turbulent electoral history. The last election, held in 2014, was a mess. Intense street protests erupted over a controversial amnesty bill proposed by the former government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who chose later to dissolve Thailand’s Parliament and called for snap elections. Upper-middle-class urban protesters and royalists gathered, forming the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by Suthep Thaugsuban. The PDRC employed brutal measures to interrupt the 2014 polls. More than 6 million registered voters were affected in the electoral upheaval that closed many polling stations nationwide. Later, the Constitutional Court ruled the election invalid.
Earlier elections also were held in the aftermath of previous military coups. The 2007 election was tainted due to the previous junta’s interference with the opposition political party, when it tried to blame it for insulting Thailand’s famed monarch. The military government banned the Thaksin Shinawatra-led Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) and over 100 executives from politics for five years. Vote buying and general election malfeasance are typical occurrences in Thai elections. Recently, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has been working inroads in Thailand’s North to convert Thaksin allies ahead of the election.
The Pheu Thai Party, the last major political party to win a major election in Thailand in 2011 called for the 2019 election to be both free and fair, partly because if the election results are not given the same legitimacy by other countries, it may put Thailand’s economy at risk. Thailand begins its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year. It does not want a repeat of 2009, when meetings were interrupted by political protests.
The Election Commission (EC), which was set up after the May 2014 coup, but some question whether the body can withstand oversight or it is merely a vehicle for getting the ruling junta elected in 2019. For example, the EC recently changed the constituency borders that favor the new pro-government Palang Pracharat Party (PPP). EC Secretary General Jarungwit Phumma told international organizations for the first time that they need to seek the permission of the Commission if they intend to observe elections next year, breaking with tradition.
When Thailand held a referendum in 2016 on a new Constitution, several groups like ANFREL complained that the Election Commission took an unnecessary amount of time to respond to observer requests. The Open Forum for Democracy Foundation or PNet also complained of a restrictive observer environment.
Thailand’s electoral system is designed to give the junta unprecedented control over who will be the next Prime Minister of the country, as such the new PPP and the opposition parties will not have enough representation to reach a combined majority of seats in both houses. Recently, the junta lifted the ban on political activities in Thailand after announcing the February 24 election date. Thailand has some of the most restrictive laws on public assembly, with jail terms of up to 10 years for violations of the Public Assembly Act.
Image Credit: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.