WASHINGTON — This week’s protests in Thailand are just the latest manifestation of growing political tension in the country, which is itself reflective of deep societal divides in the years since the 2006 coup.
The political tension is exacerbated immeasurably by the way in which elections are adjudicated, and as tens of thousands of protesters continue to fill the streets demanding a variety of reforms, the importance of improvements to the electoral system becomes even more vital.
Seeds of discord were sown when Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who holds favor with Bangkok's elite, came to power 15 months ago following a series of constitutional court decisions that removed or disqualified his political rivals for the position.
The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) maintains that Abhisit came to power illegitimately. The red-shirted UDD maintains that his predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed in a 2006 coup amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power, is the country's true leader. Despite his enormous wealth, the Red Shirts consider Thaksin to be an advocate on behalf of the poor.
The UDD is now into its fourth week of protests aimed at forcing the army and prime minister to dissolve parliament and call new elections within 15 days.
The government maintains that holding elections in the limited timeframe the Red Shirts are asking for is impossible, though the government has said it may be willing to dissolve parliament within nine months. Compromise on the part of the protesters does not seem to be forthcoming, however, and continued turmoil holds the risk of violence.
On Thursday, the Red Shirts, alleging bias in the handling of complaints by the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT), stormed its premises to force the resolution of a year-old complaint against the ruling party. The protesters’ decision to move against the ECT was highly targeted that could significantly impact the overall political situation and future elections in Thailand.
The current legal framework gives the ECT both investigatory and adjudicatory powers. As such, the ECT occupies the roles of police, prosecutor, judge and jury. Moreover, the law directs the ECT to impose severe criminal penalties for electoral violations including the dissolution of political parties and revocation of political rights.
Based on constitutional changes made in 2007, some ECT decisions are reviewable by the Supreme Court. Still, the immense responsibility placed upon the ECT takes away from its primary responsibility to conduct the elections, overwhelms the commission with its workload, and places it in the middle of hugely partisan political battles.
Empowering an entity with such wide-ranging authority necessarily contributes to a perception of bias, be it justified or not. While international election experts generally concur that the ECT has functioned in a generally unbiased manner, they also agree that the sweeping role of the commission makes it a more likely target for corruption by those in power as well as an actual target of public distrust, anger, and pressure — as evidenced by events on April 8.
Electoral disputes in Thailand have a storied history. While ongoing reforms have made vast improvements, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), in collaboration with various partners in Thailand, has advocated for modifications to the basic structure of election adjudication and the system of penalties for electoral malfeasance.
Creating a system by which election complaints are administered and adjudicated by separate independent bodies is a successful model through which to address bias, whether perceived or real. And, more reasonable and graduated penalties would provide for a wider range of options short of dissolving political parties and revoking voting rights. We believe such changes would go a long way in addressing many of the issues that are manifest in this week's protests.
The support of the international community, including alliances such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which met April 8 and 9, can be very helpful in guiding Thailand through these reforms. The international community should be prepared to provide comparative perspective and experience to support efforts by Thai policy-makers and practitioners to produce effective laws and implementation measures.
Thailand’s long-standing reform efforts — particularly those directed at greater checks and balances and separation of powers — are commendable. They are also essential to the country’s political stability and democratic consolidation.
Like any democracy, adjustments are required to meet the ongoing needs of an effective, legitimate and accountable government. As Thailand’s protracted political crisis suggests, meaningful legal and structural reform of the electoral system is required to prevent further political volatility.
By Chad Vickery, Regional Director, Europe & Asia, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). The author would like to thank IFES legal fellows Jeremy Hunt and Jennifer Mishory for their assistance.