[Thailand] Expert panel looks back on 2019 elections, rues ‘unfair’ and undemocratic process

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) found the 2019 Thai General Election lacking the most important element that makes elections democratic: a healthy political climate. Although the election was peaceful and without obstruction, its legitimacy is questionable, said executive director Chandanie Watawala on 21 June 2019.

In part, this was because the Thai people were denied access to information that is so vital in any electoral process. 

The final mission report of ANFREL’s International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) emphasized that the election operated in a legal environment designed to prop up the ruling establishment while severely curtailing press freedom and the right to freedom of expression. 

Freedom of expression for individuals and the media in the leadup to the 2019 Thai general election was more controlled and restricted than during the 2011 general election, reported ANFREL. Various National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)  announcements and orders that restricted media freedom, free expression, and access to information were in place during the entire electoral process. 

For instance, NCPO Announcement 103/2014, which banned the publication of news that is “intentionally distorted to cause public misunderstanding that affects national security or public order,” had effectively regulated not only the media but also the political parties and civil society activists. 

Other orders systematically suppressed independent media through monitoring the dissemination of information to the public for national security purposes (NCPO Order No 41/2016, Announcement No. 3/2015) and prohibiting “criticism of the work of the NCPO.” Interviews with academics and civil servants were also proscribed (Announcement No. 97/2014). 

Legal provisions on sedition (Criminal Code Section 116) and on defamation (Criminal Code Sections 326 to 333) that stifle critical views against the government or the military were used to intimidate mainstream and alternative media.  During the campaign, authorities also used Section 14(2) of the Computer Crime Act against political candidates for “transmitting false information or information that damages the country’s stability.” 

Against the backdrop of a repressive legal and political environment, Thai media made considerable efforts to educate the public although they often resorted to self-censorship, ANFREL program officer  Karel Jiaan Antonio noted.

Without an open space that protects free speech and criticism, the Thai voters were prevented from making an informed decision during the 24 March poll, ANFREL program officer Amael Vier added.   

The ANFREL report, The 2019 Thai General Election: A Missed Opportunity for Democracy,” was launched on 21 June 2019 at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. 

Yingcheep Atchanont, program manager of iLaw, an organization advocating free expression and civil and political rights in Thailand, stressed that the NCPO had been in full control of the election even before the official campaign kicked off. Fundamental freedoms, he maintained, remained restricted throughout the election. 

For instance, Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-o-cha amended election rules using Section 44 of the Thai 2014 Interim Constitution, which grants the NCPO, as the military junta is called, absolute power against “threats” to public peace. These special orders required the NCPO’s prior approval of political party activities and granted the junta power to restrict individuals from doing online campaigns. 

In contrast, personalities affiliated with the NCPO had the opportunity to campaign since the junta took power four years ago   way before the December 2018 lifting of the ban on political activities, Atchanont said. 

From January to March 2019, iLaw had documented 48 cases of intimidations and 13 cases of violations under the Computer Crimes Act, filed against anti-junta politicians.

Purawich Watanasukh, research fellow at the King Prajadhipok’s Institute, found the electoral process oriented towards enabling the NCPO to retain power. The single-ballot paper and the calculation of the party-list seats implemented by the Election Commission were contentious. These electoral issues were ultimately rooted in the mixed-member apportionment (MMA system), which, he said, was structured to prevent the opposition bloc Pheu Thai Party from winning. 

The EC’s release of the party-list seat calculation in a narrative rather than mathematical format also proved questionable. The calculation method, issued after the election, was a departure from the process that was set and agreed upon prior to the nationwide vote, said Vier of ANFREL. “You don’t change the rules of the game after the game has been played,” he said. 

ANFREL also questioned the integrity of the election results, particularly the tabulation and transmission software “Rapid Report,” which election observers, political parties, and the media did not have access to. 

According to Watanasukh the results of the Thai poll have led to a fragile and fragmented party system. Polarization in the country is on the rise, based not so much on political orientation as on whether one is pro- or anti-NCPO, he observed.

A closer look into the election results reveals a strong vote against NCPO-backed politicians. Atchanont reported that while the NCPO parties garnered 8,873,989 votes, the opposition parties won almost twice as many votes,  16,444,004.

Watanasukh and Atchanont both identified the EC’s questionable formula of the party-list seats as responsible for the electoral win of candidates affiliated with the NCPO. In May the Commission announced that 26 parties had secured party-list MP seats even if 11 of them did not win enough votes.

The EC must “enact a party-list seat allocation formula which adheres to principles of proportionality in representation,” recommended ANFREL in its report. 

“It is essential to address the fact that this latest Thai election was not a truly democratic process but at best a missed opportunity, which failed to deliver on the people’s expectations,” said ANFREL’s Watawala.

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