Thailand heads for straitjacket
elections By Marwaan
BANGKOK - The first
parliamentary election to be held in Thailand
since last year's military coup is generating
excitement for all the wrong reasons. Political
parties, the media and analysts are up in arms
over a raft of restrictions imposed last week on
candidates in the run-up to the December 23 poll.
Under the new rules recently announced by
the election commission (EC), the customary
festive air of a campaign, where a prospective
parliamentarian is often feted with a public
promote his or her candidacy
once the race officially begins, is banned. Also
now deemed illegal is the practice of candidates
enlisting popular film, music and entertainment
figures to boost their campaigns.
poll, say the commissioners, the broadcast media
will not be able to exercise editorial judgment as
to which candidate they want to feature in a news
program or an interview ahead of the election.
Instead, the new regulations state that television
and radio stations must invite representatives
from all parties to participate in every program
if candidates are to be featured.
country's universities have not been spared. For
these polls, they will not be able to conduct the
pre-election seminars and discussions with select
candidates, a practice that in the past has helped
to feed political debate and generate more
information about the issues at stake. The
universities must follow the same rules as the
media: feature representatives of all parties at
every event or none at all.
print press is howling, publishing headlines such
as "EC's restrictions on political rallies stifle
democratic freedoms". In the column that appeared
below that headline in Sunday's edition of The
Nation, a columnist argued that the limits
including restrictions on election campaign
rallies to specially designated areas "is a risky
proposition that runs counter to the basic
principles of democracy, in which access to
information must be unfettered".
Thailand's media associations have issued
statements that the regulations violate the
guarantees of a right to freedom of information
and speech upheld in the current constitution,
which was approved by a 57% majority of the
population in a mid-August referendum.
"Restrictions imposed on media coverage could lead
to a lack of sufficient information on candidates
that in turn could affect voters' decision at
polling stations," Thakerng Somsap, president of
the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, was
quoted saying in the local press.
has been accused of exceeding its mandate and role
since the first commission was created in line
with the recently abrogated 1997 constitution.
"Such an attempt to micromanage the election is
unprecedented," said Giles Ungpakorn, a political
scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University
and consistent critic of last year's military
coup. "It is an attempt to limit electioneering
and the open discussion of politics that is normal
in any election campaign."
such as German academic Michael Nelson, faulted
the EC for upholding what he considers to be the
conservative and authoritarian streak that runs
through the country's entrenched political elite.
"These new rules are a form of bureaucratic
authoritarianism," said Nelsen in an interview.
"This shows how utterly ridiculous their thinking
"Electioneering is an activity among
citizens in the public space where the state
should not intervene in such a manner," he added.
"It confirms that the current election commission
is not neutral. There was a far more liberal
democratic atmosphere when elections were held
under [former prime minister] Thaksin
The political climate ahead
of the polls comes at an awkward moment for
Thailand's ruling junta and its appointed civilian
government and bureaucratic sympathizers. The
forthcoming election has been billed by the
military as a demonstration of its commitment to
restore the country's democratic credentials,
which it immediately announced on seizing power in
Over the weekend, the
military-appointed prime minister, General Surayud
Chulanont, urged the country's 45 million voters
to come out in strength at the December polls
during his weekly broadcast over state radio.
Nonetheless, Thailand's international standing as
an established regional democracy took a serious
hit with last year's military coup and the
government's subsequent passage of various
illiberal policies and laws.
Thailand was not invited for the first time to an
international meeting of the world's democracies,
to be held this year in mid-November in the
African nation of Mali. Thailand had enjoyed a
seat at the Community of Democracies, a global
group of the world's oldest and newest
democracies, at the ministerial meetings in 2000
in Poland, 2002 in South Korea, and 2005 in Chile.
Thailand's exclusion from the
international community of democracies was not
what the country's military leaders had in mind
when they mounted their putsch and drove from
power the twice-elected former premier Thaksin.
The country's 18th coup was justified by the junta
as an attempt to help restore the democratic
culture that they said Thaksin and his Thai Rak
Thai (Thais Love Thai) party had undermined during
over five years in government.
Yet in the
months since their takeover, the space for a free
and open political environment has come under
threat by laws, verdicts and rules imposed by
supposedly independent institutions, including the
EC. The mid-August referendum to approve the new
constitution - despite the democratic process –
was a case in point. The new charter is replete
with new anti-democratic provisions, including
measures that diminish the role of elected
political parties and bolster the discretionary
powers of political appointees, including the
half-appointed, half-elected senate.
thinking behind the election commission's
decisions is the same as the junta: they do not
want the Thai Rak Thai or the party representing
it to return to power," said the academic Giles.
"What they fail to realize is that the coup which
overthrew an elected government destroyed Thai
democracy in the first place."