Notes from the Field

Thai Citizens Vigilant Observers During Election, But Upholding Democracy Doesn’t Stop There

July 13, 2011

At a polling station in Chiang Mai province, election officials were busy counting votes just moments after the polls closed for Thailand’s July 3 general election. As counting continued, each ballot was placed aside in a pile, visible to the large crowd observing.

Thai election polls

An election official calls out vote counts to the crowd observing. Photo by Pauline Tweedie.

“You miscounted these ballots. There are two ‘no vote’ ballots here, so how come there is only one marked on the board?” a man bellowed from the crowd of bystanders outside the polling station there to witness the vote counting. His complaint was echoed by others in the crowd as they demanded the ballots that had been marked be recounted again. “Don’t worry. We’re doing our jobs,” one poll officer assured the crowd. “We citizens are doing our jobs as well,” replied the man.

An increasingly active and alert Thai public took part in this historic election on July 3 – one that would determine the fate of the country for months and years to come. “All we want is a peaceful resolution so we as a country can move on. People are just fed up with one political crisis over another,” said one voter after casting his vote at a polling center in the outskirts of Bangkok. His sentiment echoes that of many Thais, with the hope that this election would pave the way for a much-needed reconciliation among the conflicting sides.

The Election Commission of Thailand reported a 75 percent voter turnout this year, just slightly higher than the last general election in 2007. As voters filled polling stations across the country, a team of my colleagues from The Asia Foundation spent the day observing the election as members of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) international observation mission, as local observers, and as polling officials in their home districts in Bangkok, Samut Prakarn, Korat, and Chiang Mai provinces. It was reassuring to see such enthusiasm among the electorate – citizen bystanders at nearly every polling station played an active role in witnessing the entire process – from sealing the ballot boxes at exactly 8 a.m., to the moment the ballot boxes were opened and counted before the public. Throughout the day irregularities were pointed out as people questioned operating procedures within the polling stations or called out when a polling official marked the wrong line.

Things seemed to have gone relatively smoothly on voting day itself, though some maneuvering behind the scenes was undeniable. In addition to official party agents assigned to observe individual polling stations, vote canvassers were overtly mulling around some stations. They kept a close watch as voters entered and exited the polling stations and were within eyesight of the exit polling areas, usually set up within 300 meters of the polling station. This was evidently an intimidation factor among some local voters, which potentially tainted some of the exit poll results in these areas. Furthermore, in the days leading up to the election, numerous reports emerged of vote buying, manipulation, and mass mobilization of canvassers in provinces all over the country, from the upper North, areas of the Northeast, to the lower South. Parties desperate to hold onto their constituencies offered voters a minimum average of 300 THB ($10) per head to secure votes. Other forms of manipulation included mobilizing influential religious leaders, village heads, and local government officials to round up voters to secure votes for a particular political party. This has been common practice in Thailand for decades and will continue as long as money politics remains so strongly embedded in a flawed democracy.

Though high voter turnout and vigilant citizen observers on election day are promising signs, it is time the Thai electorate realize that true democracy does not only mean being vigilant on election day. A citizen’s duty in upholding democracy does not end with the marking of a ballot at a polling station. Instead, citizens must realize that their role as critical observers continues long beyond election day. It is up to every citizen here to become true guardians of democracy to ensure that in the months and years to come those put to power on July 3 exercise that power selflessly and with the utmost integrity.

Wadee Deeprawat is a program research officer in The Asia Foundation’s Thailand office. She can be reached at wadee@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

View all posts by Wadee Deeprawat

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