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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 31, 2007
Thailand heads for straitjacket elections
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

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 parade to

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.

For this 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.

Even the 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.

The local 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.

The EC 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."

Other analysts, 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 is."

"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 [Shinawatra]."

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 September 2006.

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.

Notably, 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.

"The 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."

(Inter Press Service)

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