A polling station located near a Thong Fah Pracharat store in Prachinburi province.

[Thailand] Lack of information, voter confusion marred polls —expert panel says

Inadequate voter education and confusion over the new ballot system and assigned polling  stations marred the recently concluded Thai election. These were on top of election-related regulations that were stacked against the opposition parties and, among others, heavily curtailed fundamental freedoms such as access to information.

Analysts and poll observers who took part in a forum organized recently by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT), dubbed “Thai elections 2019: What comes next?”, tackled the country’s much anticipated vote. The FCCT panel identified structural flaws in Thailand’s first election in eight years.

Chandanie Watawala, executive director of Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), noted the lack of voter education, especially in time for the advanced voting on 17 March. Some voters were confused about the new ballot system and assigned polling booths.

Voters were not exhaustively informed about the single-ballot system, said Parinya Thewanaruemitkun, vice rector for Administration and Sustainability at Thammasat University.

During the 2011 general election, which preceded the last vote,  Thais had two ballots to cast — one for the constituency and one for party list. The junta-sponsored 2017 Constitution of Thailand approved the single-ballot, with a “more sophisticated calculation” for the party-list system (see Thai General Election 2019 guide by Prachathai). Many voters reported being unfamiliar with the new ballot scheme for the recent poll.   

As a result 1.9 million ballots were declared invalid — which approximated the number of wasted ballots cast in the general election in 2011, said Thewanaruemitkun.

Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, said “the invalid ballots do not reflect ‘mixed decisions’ on the part of the voters” but the lack of voter education in the last election. “They had a vote,” she maintained.

Reuters senior correspondent Panu Wongcha-um cited the Election Commission’s (EC) lack of preparation for the national poll. Some election volunteers, he noted, were not familiar with the electoral processes, for instance.

ANFREL’s Watawala said “only a few political parties were able to train their volunteers on how to monitor the election.” This lack of training may have affected the reporting of some uneven implementation of electoral rules and procedures, it said.

 

A polling station located near a Thong Fah Pracharat store in Prachinburi province.

ANFREL is set to release a recommendation on Thailand’s electoral process and procedures, including campaign guidelines related to incumbent government programs. In its interim report released on 26 March, ANFREL earlier noted that the “normalization of self-censorship in Thai society” has muzzled media and civil society groups during the poll.

Sharing photos taken during their 30-province monitoring on election day (24 March), Watawala showed a polling station located near a Thong Fah Pracharat store, a welfare discount project of the incumbent military government. Ruling junta leader and incumbent Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-o-cha is Palang Pracharat Party’s (PPRP) prime ministerial candidate for the 2019 election.  

In December 2018, EC secretary-general Jarungvith Phumma refuted allegations that the PPRP’s campaign would benefit from the welfare scheme (see Bangkok Post report).

Election results are set to be released on  9 May. “We still don’t know what can happen,” said  Thewanaruemitkun, a legal scholar.

This sense of uncertainty sprang in part from Thai netizens’ confusion and distrust of the EC and its ballot counting, as reported by ANFREL in its interim report on the Thai election, as well as  by foreign media.

On the evening of 24 March, the EC reported a voter turnout of 65.96%, only to raise it to 74.69% four days later without any explanation, according to Khaosod English.

There were talks that preliminary results, or 90% of the ballots cast, had been counted by the end of election day but these were not released to the public contrary to expectations. Instead of announcing the official voting tallies on 25 March, the EC declared that they will do so on 9 May, or more than a month after the election. The EC also took down its online report initially released to the media on 28 March, after reporters discovered discrepancies in the tally of votes (see Khaosod English report).

Other panelists rued the issues and challenges that confronted the nation months before the election. To many observers, these arose from laws and regulations that were widely seen as rigged in favor of the ruling political party and its known allies.

“The election was stacked against any opposition (to the junta),” said David Streckfuss, an independent scholar on the Thai Constitution.

Thewanaruemitkun noted that the 2017 Constitution was designed to weaken major political parties. For instance, the voter turnout for Pheu Thai Party, which was associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was lower than expected because its political ally, Thai Raksa Chart (TRC), was dissolved. The votes that TRC would have delivered to form a coalition with Pheu Thai went to Future Forward Party (FFP), which appealed to young voters for its progressive stance on the military establishment and social inequality.

In February, the EC recommended to disband the Thai Raksa Party based on its acts “deemed hostile to the constitutional monarchy” (see Bangkok Post report).

The panel in the FCCT forum held 28 March 2019 also shared their insights on the voting trends based on the last election. Sawasdee recalled that in 2011, Pheu Thai Party had 14 million votes. In the 2019 poll, it garnered only half of these votes, 7 million, while another party, the anti-junta Future Forward Party got 6.2 million votes. The political science professor pointed out that the Thai pro-military Palang Pracharath (People’s State Power) Party benefited from the split votes.

Members of the FCCT panel agreed that the 2019 general election reflected a polarization in Thai society. Streckfuss noted, for instance, that in the recent poll, “89% of the northeast (people) voted against the military.

“In the past, where the northeast vote goes, Thailand goes. But that 89% did not vote for Pheu Thai,” he said. The Khon Kaen-based scholar stated that Future Forward got its numbers from voters who are liberal and who believe in human rights.

In this political tableau replete with controversies that hounded the recent polls and the continuing challenges surrounding Thai people’s aspirations for a genuine democracy, the panelists said the Thai election can be best valued for its hint of hope and inspiration.

It may signal a new chapter in Thai politics, they added. But whether this chapter will solidify changes towards a ‘full and sustainable democracy’ in Thailand remains to be seen.

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