Unsurprisingly, the electoral dust in Thailand shows few signs of settling yet after the first election since the 2014 coup ousting of former premier Yingluck Shinawatra. As this continues to unfold, perceived irregularities have been deepening distrust of some of the country’s key institutions further clouding the ability for the country to move ahead after a clear sense of what has occurred.
There continues to be focus on various efforts by the Thai junta to introduce different forms of institutional engineering ahead of the elections to affect its outcome. But added to this are perceived irregularities that have surfaced which have further muddied the waters and intensified suspicions about the role of institutions in polls.
The chief focus with respect to these irregularities has been on the election commission itself. The failure of the commission to release results in a timely fashion as promised Sunday evening has fundamentally undermined trust in the institution, whatever the reasons for this might be. Reports from across the country of mismatched results and “ghost votes” flooded social media, while opposition forces jumped on the opportunity to call for legal interventions.
Election Commission officials told Reuters “human error” was to blame for many of the irregularities. But given all the forms of engineering that had been play with respect to the elections even before it was held, this was a line the opposition are unwilling to buy.
As a case in point, in a widely-read opinion piece for the New York Times, Thaksin Shinawatra said he was “surprised” by the lengths to which the ruling junta went to keep a tight grip on results. He laid out a case of systemic efforts to weigh the vote in the junta’s favor and suggested the reported irregularities are part of a larger scheme to remain in power.
This is hardly a shocking line of attack from the ousted prime minister now living in exile. Nonetheless, it was significant that the irregularities are being used by Thaksin in what is likely to be a continuing fight with the junta and its allies — the marquee of which was posted with the dissolution of the Pheu Thai-linked Thai Raksa Chart party.
International monitoring agency Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) has warned against investing too much in the failures of the Election Commission to release results in a timely fashion. It’s a common occurrence across the region, and does not necessarily spell certain nefarious motivation.
But that misses the larger point that given both the efforts at engineering that preceded the elections and the inherent suspicions among some about the process and outcome, any sense that there was foul play in the works would have been perceived as further undermining the election.
Furthermore, the focus on the irregularities that resulted may only be one manifestation of broader issues. In its interim report released early this week in Bangkok, ANFREL points to a much larger failing on the commission’s behalf. It found that the commission had not done enough to adequately prepare the electorate for the process, including failing to display information in polling booths regarding the 16 different ways in which a ballot can be marked to be considered valid.
Furthermore, the report said, a lack of independent observers, both domestic and international, as well as those linked to parties provided little opportunity for disputes during the count process and is a major factor in questioning the veracity of results.
“These counting rules and their uneven implementation may have allowed a number of otherwise legitimate ballots to be included in the 2.8 million invalid ballots. While the number is lower than in the 2011 general election, invalid ballots still amount to a significant 5.6 percent of the total voter turnout,” the report said.
The organization has called on the Election Commission to review these ballots, “especially in constituencies where the percentage of invalid ballots is greater than the winning margin,” the report added.
Fundamentally, the lack of trust in the Election Commission as an institution is eroded to a point nearing fatal. “The debacle that was the preliminary announcement of results on the evening of March 24 strengthened suspicions of the public about the credibility of the election outcome, warranting urgent mitigation measures,” ANFREL found.