The Thai and Cambodian elections will be electoral authoritarianism in action

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Both Thailand and Cambodia have upcoming elections. Neither will be free or fair, but both are of huge importance to the incumbent governments.

By Oliver Ward

The coming twelve months will be of vital importance for two democracies at the heart of ASEAN. Both Cambodia and Thailand will likely go to the polls in a general election this year. Cambodia’s election is due in July. Thai military government leader Prayut Chan-o-cha alluded to an election in November. But this could change.

The elections are of paramount importance to Thailand and Cambodia. Both countries have had their democracy eroded by authoritarian leaders. Both elections allow the heads of state to legitimise their authoritarian regimes. Neither election will be fair.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai junta head Prayut-Chan-o-cha employ similar strategies. They will both resort to repressive measures to cling to power. Neither country has an organised opposition with a leader to rally around. The national press in Thailand and Cambodia are also under governmental control. This will make it almost impossible to unseat Hun Sen and Prayut at the ballot box.

The Thai and Cambodian opposition movements lack a leader

Hun Sen and Prayut have legally persecuted the opposition. As a result, neither opposition movement has a leader to rally behind. In Cambodia, Hun Sen banned the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Authorities arrested its leader, Kem Sokha.

In Thailand things are just as bad. Yingluck Shinawatra is living in exile after authorities put her on trial for graft. Thailand’s Supreme Court jailed Jutaporn Prompan last July. He faced charges of defaming a former prime minister.

Dozens of other opposition candidates also face exclusion from the elections. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) investigates graft. It is about to deliver a guilty verdict against 39 politicians. This would exclude them from forthcoming elections. Prayut is using national institutions to crust political opposition.

Voter exclusion is a problem in Cambodia

In Cambodia, Hun Sen has made the process to register as a new voter overly complicated. In September 2017, around 1.6 million people were eligible to vote but were not yet registered. Voter registration for 2018 opened on the 1st of September and lasted for 70 days. During this period, only 536,023 Cambodians registered to vote. This leaves more than 1 million people unregistered.

Sam Kuntheamy is the executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC). He believes that a deliberately complex voter registration process is to blame. The process required Cambodian migrant workers to leave work and travel to register. Observers believe the absence of these voters could have a big impact on the election.

Source: Phuket Gazette

Both leaders have control over the national media

Hun Sen’s media clampdown was well documented and met with public outcry. He closed the independent Cambodia Daily newspaper last year. He also charged two former reporters of Radio Free Asia with espionage. The pair face 15-years imprisonment.

Prayut employs the same strategies in Thailand. From 2016 to 2017, Thailand fell six places in the World Press Freedom Index. It now sits in 142nd position out of 180 countries. This is due to bills like the proposed reform panel to regulate the media. Prayut proposed a 15-member panel to oversee all forms of media communication.

Democracy is falling into an abyss, but both regimes need these elections to strengthen their positions

The Thai and Cambodian leadership have taken extensive measures to curtail national democracy. The elections will not be free or fair. There will be little opportunity for the opposition to seize power. These elections have another purpose.

The elections are to shore up both governments grip on power. The Cambodian opposition made significant gains in the 2017 local elections. Prayut’s popularity is also at its lowest level since the military came to power in 2014. Both men need something to strengthen their position.

Both governments will use the elections to provide stability and legitimacy. The elections will be engineered so that the incumbent government wins convincingly. In doing so, it sends a strong political message; that they are invincible.

This message of invincibility is designed to prevent regime insiders from defecting. It is also an attempt to weaken the opposition in the eyes of the electorate. After the elections, both governments will be stronger. They will have the legitimacy they crave.

But both governments will be vulnerable before the election

The build-up to an election is a vulnerable time for an electoral authoritarian. Elections provide a brief window of opportunity to challenge authoritarian rule. Not through the ballot boxes, because they are stacked in the incumbent’s favour. But through protests and external pressures.

Public and international mobilisation is the only way to unseat Hun Sen and Prayut. Popular protests in the streets can cause uncertainty among inner ranks of government. This could trigger high-profile defectors. Hun Sen and Prayut would have to respond with even more repressive measures. This could prompt democratic states to impose sanctions on Thailand or Cambodia. Sanctions and public protests would weaken the government to the point of collapse.

These elections are more an exercise in regime stability than democratic freedom. As both regimes cling to power, it is apparent they will do anything to survive. But that does not mean they are without opportunity.