A talk with an international election observer: "Thailand electoral justice system the toughest in Asia"


After much anticipation, Thailand’s Election Commission has recently announced that the general election will still go ahead on February 2nd. Despite the disruptions and protests during the candidate registration process, most of the candidates from 23 parties, except the Democrat Party who boycotted the election, managed to register, except those in 28 districts of the south’s eight provinces.

At the same time, the anti-government protesters vow to have their “Bangkok shutdown” on January 13th, call for the government to resign immediately and “reform first, election later,” claiming that Thailand’s election is full of corruption, and as some of its leaders said, Thailand’s rural people are not ready for democracy.

Prachatai talks to Ichal Supriadi, the executive director of the Asian Network for Free Election (ANFREL), who has for over seven years observed elections in Asian countries, from Afghanistan to Papua, including the past three elections in Thailand, on elections and their implication for the country’s disrupted democracy.

Ichal Supriadi, Indonesian executive director of the Asian Network for Free Election (ANFREL)


The anti-government protesters in Thailand are calling for the election to be postponed and the country to be reformed first.  Have you seen a similar movement anywhere else in the countries you’ve observed?

It is worth reminding ourselves of the diversity of Asian countries with different languages, beliefs and ethnic, social, cultural, economic and political backgrounds. This may contribute to and shape different styles and models of democratization. However, in running international elections observation missions, we have been guided by human rights principles and public international law on free, fair and democratic elections. Before deciding on a mission, we normally conduct a preliminary assessment to see if the minimum indicators for free, fair and democratic elections exist. In an observation mission, ANFREL is guided by the Declaration of Principles for International Elections Observation, which were signed by many international organizations including the UN, EU, OAS and African Union. 

We recognize at least 3 basic indicators to shape a minimum standard of free, fair and democratic elections: 
1. Assurance of the three basic freedoms, of expression, assembly and association, among the contending parties, peoples and media
2. Comprehensive electoral law, giving the same level playing field and giving the same opportunity for everybody to contest. There are no exceptions.
3. An election commission body, which is perceivably neutral and professional.
 
So you can see, things like basic freedoms, laws, freedom of the press, and freedom of civil society and other things must at least meet minimum standards, and then we jump into a country. If not, or if one component does not exist, we may decide not to go.
 
So in Bangladesh (the 5 January 2013 election), ANFREL and other international observers are not going in, because they may have found that the minimum standards or requirements for a fair election are absent.

 
The democrat party has boycotted this election. What do you think of the opposition’s demand to call for reform of elections first?
 
It is a decision of any group/parties to participate or disenfranchise themselves from the election process. The elections would be more competitive and meaningful with the full participation of all political groups in the country.
 
We appreciate the demand of the Democrats and other groups for reform and their campaign for the establishment of transparency, accountability and justice in the country, as this is the main achievement of the ideal democratic regime.
 
Despite vote buying charges that were made by many people and which make people believe that the election is not worth it, it is much better to start thinking about reprogramming people’s mind with quality democracy education, civic awareness or voter education. The people have watched different street protests in an attempt to forcefully dismantle the ruling government for the past few years, with boycotts and violence etc. Hopefully these circumstances could be corrected and the Thais could have a credible and accountable government. And reconciliation can be achieved.
 
 
What are the abnormal things from what you’ve observed in previous Thai elections? Should this be used as excuse to reform first then hold elections later?
 
Political reform and elections are interrelated; good elections can produce a good government, but it's not always the case, of course. ANFREL learnt there are most elections in the Asian region are imperfect. Problems vary from country to country.
 
The Thailand elections deserved compliments in terms of its administration. The Election Commission was able to administer them well. ANFREL published a report on the 2011 elections in two languages (Thai and English) concluding that in general, the elections went well. We also recognize administration problems during the advance votng arrangements. Cases of vote buying have been reported and well addressed by the EC by issuance of yellow and red cards.
 
Periodic elections give certainty in many aspects, where the rights of universal franchise can be assured and everybody's opinion could be counted. The reform option toward election is noble if it can be placed within a constitutional framework; otherwise somebody must answer questions like who will do it? What agenda can be agreed? Can legitimacy and delivery be assured?  What resistance is there from other contending parties/group?
 
Secondly, the previous election has delivered a mandate to the government. Don’t forget the people’s mandate. When you agree that every four years, a government will be elected, and then don’t forget that. When you find them bad, they’re corrupt, then punish them through two things: 1. through an independent judicial system; 2. in the next election, don’t vote for them.
 
 
In violent countries like in Afghanistan or Iraq, what’s the EC’s role in making the election happen?
 
It’s worth clarifying that Afghanistan is considered the first country in Asia to have elections. The seventh Afghan parliamentary election happened in 1949. But democracy was impeded because of the insurgency, foreign occupation and conflict among the tribes and armed factions that made Afghanistan vulnerable as it is now.
 
Firstly, an election is not new for Afghanistan. Secondly, ANFREL was first invited to observe the election in 2004. ANFREL was the only international monitoring organisation then. At first we considered not going, but then again they needed assistance and support from the international community to strengthen the election, to rebuild the system of democracy and to choose representatives and leaders through elections. More Afghans realised that there’s no other choice to elect a government except through free and fair elections, rather than through violence by killing each other. The game is changed from bullet to ballot.  But consider that a bullet is cheaper. If I don’t like you I can just assassinate you. Why do I have to compete in an election and have to spend money and time to campaign for the election? One bullet is only 100 baht.
 
But the culture of warlords, insurgency, and fighting has to change with democracy. That’s why we went there and showed solidarity. Now the people of Afghanistan believe only elections can generate a good government that can establish a good economy and political stability.
 
In many country elections were held under security concerns. In Timor Leste, during the 1999 referendum, even under the UN administration with serious security threats and conflict among the pro-independence and pro-autonomy movements, and despite many violent incidents, the election was held and it determined the new country of Timor Leste. How many people died? But there should be one legitimate thing.
 
In Afghanistan, if the people vote, they’re threatened with having their finger cut off. But people with courage still vote because it’s the only thing that you can decide, to be counted. They have the right to speak. They can vote for candidate A, B, C, or whoever.
 
 
So an election is worth all this violence?
 
If we have the choice, surely elections should be held in peaceful and conducive situations. This is a very difficult question. In a democratic regime, we believe that periodic free and fair elections are important for stability. So at that time, at the very beginning in Afghanistan, the commission was a mix of international and local people in order to build local capacity. But after some time, they let go. Now it’s fully Afghan.
 
It was the same in Timor Leste. The first time they created an Election Commission with the support of the UN; now they have let go. Cambodia and many other countries are like this. They enhance the expertise of the election management body; after they’re OK, they leave. They encourage people to believe that one man, one vote is the solution.
 
 
The Election Commission is criticized for seemingly siding with Suthep’s protest by suggesting postponing the election. What do you think?
 
I think there should be reasons, because the election should be held. It’s not only about security. I think there should be more clarification and explanation from the Election Commission. Postponement is very normal in Bangladesh, Timor Leste, etc. due to instability or disagreements between parties.  They are often postponed, often for weeks or months. But again one thing that's important to find clarification from the EC is until when? How long? Is there any timeframe, if they are proposed to postpone?
 
It’s not easy to deal with this situation. I think I can understand the EC’s situation. 1. They’re not even one month in the job 2. Fine tuning the exercise of their power or adjusting to the bureaucracy, with the subordinates in all provinces, a lot of management, technical matters, and of course political pressure. I believe they have lot of pressure. As everybody in this country must feel that pressure. This would include the availability of the budget as well as, of course, the legal complications if they decide to postpone the elections. If I’m the EC and I have to postpone to next week or next month, I need to assess all aspects to ensure that I do not violate the constitution.
 
 
The candidates in the 28 districts of 8 provinces could not register due to the protests. What should EC do to resolve the situation in the south?
 
In the case of Afghanistan; half of the country was in the red zone (high security). So many constituencies finally didn’t have elections. The election only happened in the areas where there was a security presence. The rest did not. If you want to explore or implement the same process, you can, but this must be acceptable under Thai law.
 
Or the Election Commission can seek advice or exercise its power by extending registration for a few days, or exercise the law by accepting those candidates who were not able to register, but have already reported to the police. So many combinations in terms of technicalities and administration can be considered by the EC.
 
In terms of Election Day and campaigning, of course if you really want to have an election and are worried about security, you can deploy more troops or deploy more police. The EC has authority to ask the police and security agencies. But, another negative implication would come, for instance in the 3 southern provinces. They have long standing bad experiences of martial law. So there’s something that needs to be seriously discussed whether it’ll happen in the 28 districts.
 
Yet under normal circumstances, there’s limited freedom of movement in the 28 districts because of security threats. There are only limited campaigns in the previous elections, and mainly only the Democrats can access the areas. Basically this is in the pocket of the Democrats. If I’m the opposition I will go ahead without the 28 constituencies. But the problem right now is they need to have 95% of the parliamentary seats.
 
In Afghanistan, in the dangerous areas, there was no election, but it was enough to open parliament. The situation was even deteriorating. All the areas bordering Pakistan were red. But again elections should be held. It should still go ahead.
 
One example is Aceh. The Aceh election was postponed 3 or 4 times, because of disturbances by the protesters, attacking and burning the Election Commission office. In Papua and Aceh, the Election Commission had to open an office at a hotel. In Irian Jaya in Papua they even had to use the district police headquarters.
 
In Thailand’s situation, it’s the gap between the two, election vs. reform. Perhaps there should be mediation to initiate dialogue how to reconcile these two options; even reform will not be the solution if the other side who also have supporters could not accept defeat in this way. If you want to overthrow the government, do not throw it out like this. Do it with respect to the constitutional order, so it won’t leave scars and prolong the conflict.
 
We may look at the way of Nepali people ‘punished’ the CPN-Maoist political leaders and party.  Despite high popularity during 2008 elections, they could not perform well and many people were disappointed with the leadership, including allegations of corruption. Despite this disappointment, the people of Nepal believed and were able to channel their frustration through voting, and they did. In the recent 2013 election, the votes for the CPN-Maoists dropped significantly.
 
Despite their vulnerability, the Nepali people, who live in a land-locked country, trusted in their ability to “express” their vote/view on political leadership through the ballot, even though transportation, communications, access and illiteracy make things difficult for them. Do you think Thai rural villagers could not do the same?  I think we all undermine them if we ever think that.
 
An election is the only way for every single vote to be counted. Elections have been mandated by UN treaties, the African Union, etc. In the African Union they are very strict. They said any attempt at the violent removal of a government would be punished. It’s stipulated in the AU constitution.  
 
You can run away from this election for many reasons but again, we live in a democratic regime. Elections are an important ingredient and you cannot run away from them.
 
 
The allegation of the protesters is that the elections are full of corruption and vote buying.  What are the most frequent complaints that you’ve seen and received?
 
ANFREL always has positive comments for the election process in Thailand, except for the previous one in 2011, when advanced voting was shortened from 2 days to one day, and the time was reduced. And there was a change in the system where everybody who voted in 2007, had to vote in the same place in 2011, while many people had already moved. But this was mandated by the law, not by the Election Commission. The Commission only implemented it.
 
Secondly, we learned of cases of vote buying, but they were already addressed under the jurisdiction of the EC. They were punished by red and yellow cards. Of course ANFREL doesn’t have the ability to prevent or investigate these things, but then again the EC should be able to manage.
 
You cannot throw around corruption charges. Bring the evidence. I think if everybody can bring the evidence, the EC would be happy to give yellow or red cards. They cannot make accusations just based on what they feel. In every country if there’s a case, you have to obtain two things - evidence and witnesses. Sometimes you don’t need witnesses. A video is enough. Nobody can survive if they have a very strong video.
 
And in fact Thailand has the strongest electoral justice system. Why? Because Thailand, alone among the countries in Asia, can punish people with yellow and red cards and even ban a political party. In my country, there are almost zero cases. Since 1999 until now, it’s still hard to punish people because of electoral fraud. This means Thailand has the strongest electoral justice impact.
 
In terms of the timeframe for bringing evidence and punishing perpetrators, it’s also progressive by keeping the case open for investigation whenever they receive the case before the next elections. It means anybody who has evidence is still able to bring it to the investigator. Unfortunately in Indonesia, we have been limited by the regulations, where the window for receiving complaints and investigations is only open for up to 7 days after the polls.
 
So it is misguided here to say elections are vote buying, elections are bad. I was also under the that impression, but I was told of the fact the people in the north voted for Pheu Thai on the party list, but for the constituency they voted for the Democrats. I think this is smart by Thai voters.
 
 
 
This article was revised at 4pm on January 6, 2013.