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After a landslide victory in Bangkok’s gubernatorial election, Chadchart Sittipunt should have felt at ease. He had secured a record 1.38 million votes on May 22, far outpacing the next runner-up who received just over 200,000 votes.
Many called the former Transportation Minister’s victory a democratic ray of light in an otherwise gloomy authoritarian state. But of course, this is Thailand. Victories are not automatic, and resistance from anti-democratic forces and electoral challenges are to be expected.
It wasn’t long before complaints were launched over Chadchart’s recyclable campaign banners, most notably from political activist Srisuwan Janya, who noted that the campaign banners, which could be turned into shopping bags or aprons, was tantamount to vote buying. Another complaint alleged that Chadchart had insulted the government by saying that its complicated steps would affect his operations as the governor of Bangkok.
It is there that a very common feeling swept over Bangkok residents—the eerie feeling that something could be amiss, that another bout of electoral interference could bring the historic and landslide victory of Chadchart to a very abrupt end. While the postponement, which allowed the Election Commission (EC) an additional day to investigate and eventually cleared him of any wrongdoing, the trauma of past interference lingers.
The disqualification of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is still prominent in the minds of Thais, where the EC disqualified the then-Future Forward Party leader after claims that his holding of shares in a media company after registering his candidacy, violated Thai election law. There is wide consensus that the EC’s action against Thanathorn was politically motivated. Later, in March 2020, the EC decided to seek criminal action against Thanathorn for violating Section 151 of the 2018 Organic Act on the Election of Members of the House of Representatives.
The anxiety felt, expressed in a vulgar hashtag #WhatthefuckiswrongwithEC (#กกตเป็นเหี้ยอะไร), is a worrying sign that the EC is a vulnerable, malleable, perhaps even corrupt institution. It wasn’t designed this way. The People’s Constitution, a celebrated document brimming with democratic centerpieces, such as legislative and executive reforms, also created the EC which was hoped would be an impartial body that would legitimize free and fair elections in the country. Yet Thailand’s seemingly natural attraction to political corruption would dispel any notion of impartiality.
After Thaksin Shinawatra was removed from power in September 2006, the junta that replaced him appointed a new Commission committee that began investigating political parties that were affiliated with him, notably the Thai Rak Thai, Pattana Chart Thai, and Pandin Thai parties. By May of 2007, a Constitutional Tribunal dissolved the Thai Rak Thai party along with banning 111 party executives from politics for five years.
The 2019 elections came a farce in part because of the EC’s incompetence and its direct control by the then-ruling military-backed junta. The commission was hand-picked by the junta after the 2014 coup. During that flawed contest, the EC got the count wrong, at one time announcing that Pheu Thai had won the most votes, before eventually announcing that Palang Pracharath, a junta-aligned party, won the most votes. At that time too, the public boiled with anger at the EC’s inability to manage the election and deal with irregularities, creating mocking hashtags on social media, such as #CheatingElection19 and #ECBusted.
The EC’s perceived lack of independence is evidenced also by its recommendation that the Constitutional Court dissolve the pro-Thaksin Thai Raksa Chart party after it named Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya as its candidate for Prime Minister. It was quick to recommend and abolish a serious challenge to Prayut’s leadership, but was reluctant to investigate Palang Pracharat’s campaign violations.
Once an institution has lost credibility, it is extremely difficult to get it back without serious political will. For a highly relevant example, I turn to the tiny landlocked Sub-Saharan state of Lesotho, which suffered for a very long time after its independence, with recent history dominated by coups, political mutinies, violent protests and state repression. In Lesotho, the monarchy, the military and weak political parties often fought for power.
The country’s 1998 election was an epic disaster, with violence, arson, looting, and later a dramatic intervention by South Africa, the regional hegemonic power. In the aftermath of the violence, Lesotho’s election commission was faced with a daunting challenge—hold a national election in just 13 months. They worked tirelessly to prepare, educating voters, building trust in a new voting system, building relationships with political parties, and securing the trust of the people. Their efforts paid off, as there were few public accusations of interference or accusations of mistakes by the commission. The success built legitimacy and credit.
But it wouldn’t last. When a fresh electoral crisis in 2007 caused a major political party to call for snap elections, it would test the credibility of Lesotho’s Commission. There had been a transfer of commissioners and the voter rolls were a bureaucratic mess. The Commission was not prepared to hold the election. The mess was so terrible that the Commission produced an official voter registry of just over 900,000 out of a potential electorate of 2.4 million people. Worse, political parties fiendishly worked to undermine the country’s electoral system. The Election Commission, while it knew of the conspiracy to undermine the new system existed, they did nothing to stop it. The result was a constitutional crisis that once again required the intervention of South Africa and regional African states—and later a righteous intervention by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu to guarantee a successful transition of power. While Lesotho would hold credible elections again in 2012 and 2015, the public never regained trust in its independent election commission.
Thailand’s Election Commission is not nearly as incompetent, but it lacks the credibility to oversee democratic elections. Electoral institutions should at the minimum, maintain capacity to keep public faith, but find themselves independent enough to prevent themselves from forming credibility problems—competence in the case of Lesotho and independence in the case of Thailand. The delay in Chadchart’s certification was another reminder of how thin trust in the Election Commission remains in Thailand. Once public trust is gone, it is easier to burn the whole institution to the ground and start from scratch than it is to repair it.