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From 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

August 11, 2000
Web posted at 5:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 5:30 a.m. EDT

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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The 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 in violence.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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