With an uneven playing field, limited transparency in the vote-counting process and playing on voters’ fears of instability, the Palang Pracharat party casts shadows over Thailand’s first elections in eight years.
Thailand held its first elections in eight years on Sunday. It appears the military junta will retain control of the civilian government, but the vote is marred by allegations of cheating and misconduct.
Left-leaning opposition parties such as Pheu Thai, affiliated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, did worse than expected at the polls. The military’s Palang Pracharat party seems to have done surprisingly well and current Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who lead the 2014 coup that brought the junta to power, will likely remain in power.
The elections showed democracy is still a long way off for Thailand. The military structured election laws and the terms of the new parliament to allow them to stay in power. By the time polls closed on Sunday, it was clear that while the junta allowed elections, they weren’t concerned enough about the perceived legitimacy of the vote to ensure it appeared transparent or even well-run.
Palang Pracharat played on the public’s fear of political instability to secure victory at the polls. It suggested a vote for the opposition might expose the country to social and political volatility. As long as voters believe they have a “safe” option of endorsing the existing political establishment, attempts at democracy will remain stunted.
The junta had already set itself up for success
As of Monday evening, Pheu Thai had won 138 seats in the House of Representatives and Palang Pracharat had won 96. The new Future Forward party, popular among young voters, took only 30 seats while the Democrats took only 33, prompting party leader and one-time Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign. Voter turnout was 66%, much lower than many anticipated after five years of military rule.
Pheu Thai will be disappointed. Future Forward ate into its voter base, with Future Forward candidates beating out more established Pheu Thai favourites in many constituencies.
But even though opposition groups have so far secured more parliamentary seats, the military will likely still be able to choose the prime minister and dominate the incoming government. Voters only had the opportunity to elect the 500 members of the lower house of parliament. The military will still appoint all 250 members of the Senate. In addition, the military will retain control over processes such as the National Strategy Act, a legally-binding 20-year development plan for the nation which dictates everything from development projects to national security.
Pro-reform parties had to win more than 250 of the elected seats to control parliament. In order to choose the next prime minister, they would have needed to win 376 votes.
The country is divided into 350 electoral constituencies, each of which has elected a member of parliament. The remaining 150 seats will be allocated to parties based on their percentage of the popular vote. Palang Pracharat won the popular vote and stands to secure a number of the remaining party list seats before reaching their capped number of seats. Pheu Thai may already be close to its cap because it performed well in the constituency elections.
Election laws made it more difficult for large parties to win a majority. The Pheu Thai leadership divided the party into a number of smaller parties to increase its chances of victory. These parties were then more vulnerable targets for political repression. The junta dissolved Thai Raksa Chart and banned its leadership from politics. A similar move against the whole of Thailand’s progressive opposition would’ve been too risky for the junta as it could lead to large scale unrest.
The government also used both Article 44 of the 2014 Interim Constitution and the Computer Crime Act to target activists and political groups.
The junta also effectively curbed grassroots mobilisation through new party requirements. Any new party had to recruit 500 founding members, each of whom must contribute 1,000 baht (US$31). This excluded many working-class citizens.
Prayut also did not lift the ban on political gatherings until December, preventing opposition parties from campaigning. The military had been campaigning long before that. Palang Pracharat also benefited from the national media apparatus. Thai TV and radio stations were required to broadcast Paryuth’s weekly speech every Friday.
The election process was also deeply flawed
Though the military had already given themselves an advantage, the polling process itself was not transparent. Official vote counts have already been delayed and results revised multiple time. Allegations of mismanagement, cheating, and hacking have emerged. Strict regulations on how voters must mark their ballots reportedly contributed to as many as 2.8 million invalid ballots, over 5% of the voter turnout. It’s unclear whether these ballots were connected to the banned Thai Raksa Chart party’s plan to “vote no” in order to prompt a new election.
There are allegations that Palang Pracharat attempted to bribe voters for votes. The People Network for Elections in Thailand (P-Net) claimed that state authorities were attempting to influence voters at polling stations.
Rights groups had urged the Thai government to allow international observers to monitor the election on the ground. The only group the junta granted permission to was the Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL). As they only received permission ten days before the election, few observers were able to arrive in time for election day.
“If neither the rules of the game nor the referee are fair, the outcome will not be respected — neither by Thai people nor internationally,” Thaksin wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times on Monday.
Controversies around opposition groups encouraged voters’ fears of unrest
The junta campaigned on a platform that fuelled voters’ fears of political unrest, encouraging the view that a vote for change is a vote for unrest. This is especially damaging for progressive parties whose voter base is from lower income or marginalised groups – demographics that would be more vulnerable to the economic impacts of political or social instability.
In the build-up to the election, images of tanks and a military presence around Bangkok went viral online. Fears of a coup circulated, though the tanks bore signs that read they were for “training.” These controversies prompted Thai voters to seek stability by voting for Palang Pracharat.
The elections aren’t finished. Tallies continue to shift and the Election Commission may take until May 9, after the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn, to finalise the results.
Young Thai voters online continue to push for a just resolution to the election. An online petition to hold the Election Commission accountable for election fraud has garnered over 660,000 signatures. Both Pheu Thai and Future Forward have called for the Election Commission to release data and explain inconsistencies.
Sunday’s vote may have been the best Thailand could expect, under its current military government. For future elections to be free and fair, the military will need to step aside. What was supposed to be democracy’s revival, turned into its public execution. But as democracy came up short, so too did the military government’s opportunity to achieve the international legitimacy it craves.