Our Correspondent: The Trials and Tribulations of the Election Commission
Still, it is one of Thailand's best hopes for cleaner politics
By DOMINIC FAULDER
The traditional image of Thai politics -- votes for sale, myriad small parties,
invisible platforms, self-destructing coalitions and unprincipled defections
-- is finally being challenged, but it's proving painful. Thailand is working
through ambitious reforms enshrined in its October 1997 Constitution. The
changes require transparent, democratic validation if they are to endure.
Inevitably, that demands involvement of the 500-seat House of Representatives
and the 200-seat Senate, where many members owe their positions to old-style
politics. What incentive would such individuals have to reform a system
whose distortions have rewarded them so richly in the past?
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Election Commission (EC) is one of the instruments designed to ensure
they face little choice. "Simply having something like this is a bit of
a shock," says Chris Baker, a veteran political observer. "To have got
this far without a major disaster is an achievement in itself." Despite
the odds, cautious progress is being made and the corrupt dinosaurs of
the political establishment may be teetering toward extinction. A largely
peaceful, democratic revolution could be under way. And the EC, charged
with overseeing the electoral process and enforcing its new rules, is
finding itself right in the eye of a political storm.
In late March, it took the unprecedented step of rejecting over one-third
of newly elected senators for suspected malfeasance, mostly vote-buying
in one form or another. Without clear evidence of direct manipulation,
only a handful of candidates were barred outright from standing again.
Most rejected senators participated in a second poll. Over the next four
months, the EC braved increasing voter apathy to push through repeat polls.
All but four cases were resolved by the third round. Three went to four
rounds and the last to five in late July. That occurred in the northeast's
Ubon Ratchathani district, where vote-buying is as much a feature of life
as fiery som tum salad.
With a general election for the lower house due by November, the Senate
debacle set alarm bells ringing. Both houses are meant to convene within
30 days of their respective election dates. If the EC again detects vote-buying
and mischief -- and again acts within its mandate -- the result could
be chaos and a protracted caretaker government.
"They have exposed the difficulties of their job and the poor drafting
of the original laws," says Baker, noting that the commission also consciously
used the Senate election to test its own limits. "It is obvious from the
glaring mistakes of the past elections that serious changes need to be
made in the electoral system," wrote Justin Nyberg of the Asian Network
for Free Elections in a recent newspaper commentary that highlighted some
serious shortcomings of the new system and of the EC itself.
Thailand remains heavily burdened by the 1997 economic meltdown. Despite
its waning popularity, the Democrat-dominated coalition government of
Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai has set the passage of the Budget Bill in
September and amendments to the election law as the last two major tasks
for the present parliament. The recent resignation of most oppositionists
at the behest of its former leader, Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, has so
far failed to force an early dissolution. Nevertheless, the opposition's
absence invites attacks on any debate's validity. Also, the stamp of the
more reactionary Senate, which has been seriously nettled by the EC, is
required to promulgate new laws.
So far, the EC can be credited with sticking firmly to its guns while
conceding the need for some modifications of the electoral process. In
July, a 16-member panel was convened under veteran (albeit controversial)
constitutional expert and former Senate speaker Meechai Ruchupan to identify
feasible adjustments. The panel tackled over a dozen pressing issues.
Almost to a man, the Chuan cabinet fended off calls for the panel's recommendations
to be implemented by executive decree -- an easier short-term route. Such
a course could be faulted as fundamentally undemocratic and dangerous
as a precedent. The draft bill was approved by the cabinet in late July
but faces a tough parliamentary passage. Indeed, even without a real opposition
presence, some observers expect it to be massacred.
The EC's main objectives are to bar cheats effectively, to reduce repeat
elections and to improve safeguards against fraudulent and defamatory
practices. While attempting to curb money politics, the EC has become
all too aware of the danger of pointing fingers too fast. Suddenly, it
has become cheaper by far to try to frame another party by buying a few
votes on its behalf to engineer its disqualification. The Senate election
only highlighted the problem of proving the true provenance of slush funds.
A proposal to monitor the accounts of parties six months prior to elections
was abandoned as unworkable. (For starters, clairvoyants would be needed
to predict snap elections.)
Critics of the EC argue that its sweeping powers and independence pose
potential risks. At present, it organizes, regulates and rules upon the
entire election process. With so much autonomy, do sufficient constitutional
safeguards exist to ensure the commission itself is properly policed and
always fair? One particularly controversial area relates to the requirement
that members of both houses be university graduates. Former army chief
and recently elected senator Gen. Arthit Kamlang-ek is the latest to have
his educational qualifications called into question. The retired general
has an army diploma and presumably was considered sufficiently educated
to head the army and serve as minister of defense. So, people rightly
ask, how is he suddenly incompetent to be a senator except for a somewhat
arbitrary and elitist rule change?
Still, all the grumbling relates more to the EC's dogged determination
to go by the book of bright new rules than to its high-handedness. It
has made a brave start in trying to filter out the poisonous dregs of
old-style politics. Given time, that process can only improve the quality
of parliamentarians -- in theory making the task of overseeing future
elections less onerous each time. In the meantime, many fear any attempt
to clean out money politics will be marked by a shift from inducement
to coercion and intimidation. The next election may well see an increase
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November 30, 2000