Observing Thailand’s Tense Elections
February 5, 2014
Despite months of protests by anti-government demonstrators, and an election boycott by the main opposition party, the Democrat Party, Thailand held a national election on Sunday. The protesters, known as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), were demanding that the current government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra step down to make way for an unelected “people’s council” to oversee reforms.
The Democrat Party forced the snap election when they resigned from Parliament to join the protests, then, realizing they were unlikely to win an election against the popular prime minister, called for a boycott. The PDRC physically blocked candidates from registering in much of the south of the country, and threatened to block the movement of ballots and the entrances of polling places on election day.
According to post-election reports, about 90 percent of polling stations were able to operate normally on election day, but there was no voting in nine southern provinces, and protesters prevented voting in 438 of Bangkok’s 6,671 polling stations. Early turnout estimates are a low 46 percent, but when adjusted for the polling stations that were closed by protesters and the boycotting opposition party supporters (who had no candidate to support), the turnout for those that were open seems much closer to earlier elections, despite disruptions and intimidation. Although The Asia Foundation did not support a full-scale observation of this election, we did have some of our staff officially accredited as observers, and on election day, we traveled to different polling sites to observe the process.
The Week Before – Preliminary Voting
January 26 was preliminary voting day for those who could not vote on February 2. Preliminary voting is normally held in one location for the entire district, usually the district office. In the morning, a colleague and I went down to Bangkok’s Laksi District Office. The polling station was set up, but anti-election protesters had surrounded the office and were preventing voters from getting inside.
After a while the staff inside gave up, and the District Electoral Officer cancelled voting. The staff then filed out of the gate to the cheers and whistles of the protesters. A few wore ribbons and blew whistles themselves, and received in return an extra ovation from the crowd. Local preliminary voters from across the district watched warily and in evident confusion, then dispersed slowly as it became evident they would not be able to vote. Later we visited district offices in the neighboring province Nonthaburi and found preliminary voting preceding peacefully and without any administrative difficulty.
The Day Before – Laksi District Office
On Saturday, the day before the election, we again visited the Laksi District Office. Anti-election demonstrators from the PDRC – led by a fiery populist monk garbed in orange – were camped out around the office playing music and singing songs. Tents for sleeping and awnings for protection from the sun were set up outside the compound, and inside the compound the protesters had set up a kitchen in the open garage beneath the office.
The protesters had parked a heavy truck across the entrance to the office compound to prevent the distribution of ballot papers across the district. Bullet holes in the side window of the truck were stark evidence that not all in the neighborhood agreed with the protesters efforts to shut down the election, an impression reinforced by the sullen and sad groups of locals huddled together on the streets around the office.
A few soldiers and police stood around watching the scene, but with orders from the government not to engage or provoke the demonstrators, there was little they could do to restore order. Inside the building we met with the District Electoral Officer, who looked both harassed and resigned. Due to the disruptions, elections in the district were cancelled later that day.
As we were leaving the office, we heard what sounded like shots ring out a few hundred meters away at the Laksi intersection. It turned out that protesters had stopped a car delivering ballot papers, and had smashed it with bricks and sticks – the driver still inside – when someone in the pro-election red shirts counter-demonstration nearby either fired a few rounds in the air, or threw some firecrackers. We were prevented from approaching the area by PDRC guards, so then went home to follow events online and on TV.
On the morning of election day, we drove into the city to see polling stations near the demonstration site at Lumpini and Silom. We visited our first station at a nearby Catholic school around 7:30, a half hour before the polls opened. The polling station was set up and staff members were in place, but no voters or party agents were present.
We presented our observer cards, but were still not allowed inside the roped-off area. The staff had never heard of international observers, and our cards were printed entirely in English, meaning most of the staff could not read them.
Next we walked through the demonstration site on Silom Road near Lumpini Park, which, since “Shutdown Bangkok,” has become a walking street. Vendors were quick to take advantage, and flooded in to set up stalls selling everything from protest t-shirts and whistles, to clothes, Barbie dolls, and underwear. On any given day more people will be found browsing the stalls than listening to the political speakers on the stage at the end of the street. Bangkok Thais love to shop, and jokes abound (Occupy Mall Street, it’s a garage sale not a demo, etc.).
But on Sunday morning the street was pretty quiet. Most of the protesters are day-trippers, and those who camp out there seemed to have fanned out across the city in an effort to block voting. We walked through the sleepy clutter and on the other side reached our next polling center, Bang Krek. This center had two stations. One was open, but the other did not open, as staff sympathetic to the Democrat Party boycott had failed to turn up.
At 8:15, only two voters had cast ballots at the open station. While we were there a mobile police team arrived, and they told us that about half of the stations in the district could not open because not enough staff had turned up. To election professionals, steeped in the ethic of non-partisan administration, the openly partisan behavior of officials sworn to uphold neutrality and a fair process for all was disturbing.
Before we left, an angry family accosted the police. The father was registered at the open station and had been able to vote; but the mother, her elderly mother, and the children were registered at the closed station and thus could not vote. The rapid reaction cops, in their brown uniforms, helmets and flak jackets, stood sheepishly under this verbal assault. It might have been humorous had it not been tragic.
Next we visited a center with three stations. All were open, but no one was waiting to vote, and none had seen more than 20 voters. Either most voters in the area agreed with the boycott, or they were simply unwilling to risk voting. At 9:15, we visited a station on Silom, a block up from the demonstration, and just 27 of the 647 voters registered at the station had voted. The polling stations and the city were quiet and subdued; a far cry from the excitement and exuberance we are used to seeing on election day in other countries.
We drove out of the city then and up to Nonthaburi to visit polling stations relatively unaffected by the demonstrations or boycott. Turnout was low here as well at midday. This was not too surprising for several reasons. In elections threatened with violence, voters often wait a while to see if anything happens, and if it’s safe to go to the polling station.
But insecurity doesn’t just shift voters to different times, it also convinces many voters that it isn’t worth it to vote at all, so overall turnout is reduced. Finally, the decision of the Democrat party to oppose and boycott the elections meant that in many constituencies there was essentially no contest. Pheu Thai voters knew their candidate would win and Democrat party voters didn’t have a candidate to vote for, leaving both wondering, why bother.
At 3:00 pm, we went to observe the counting in several other stations. Although there was a somewhat intimidating group of PDRC “observers” at one center, they didn’t attempt to interfere with the process. Overall, we thought that in the stations we visited that were functioning, the process was transparent and credible and the staff efficient.
Where protesters were able to prevent candidates from registering (primarily in the south) or voters from voting, and where politicized polling staff abandoned their responsibilities, by-elections or re-polling will be required. Elections are intended to provide a peaceful means for settling political conflict, but it’s too early to know if these elections will ultimately serve that purpose.
Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s regional director for elections and political processes, based in Bangkok. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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