Interview with ANFREL, on charter referendum observation

 
Fair access to information for voters, free access to a voting, fair ‘umpiring’ by the elections commission, and equal values of votes are among some of the most important things that Damaso G. Magbual and the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) will be looking at in the upcoming Thai Referendum vote on 7 August 2016.
 
Damaso is a professor of Philosophy and Political Science at St. Louis University in the Philippines. He also sits as a chairperson for ANFREL, and has been an elections monitoring consultant for elections in more than 12 countries since 1987. 
 
Damaso is one of the founders, and is currently a chairperson of ANFREL, which is an organization of political and civil rights organizations, that was created in 1997 following a realization by a group of human rights lawyers that civil and political rights should also be involved in human rights. The creation of ANFREL was necessary because of the many civil and political right violations that were occurring in Asia at the time, regardless of the fact that most Asian nations are signatories of the The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
 
Currently, Thailand has one ANFREL member organization known as Poll Watch, but there is a new upcoming member they refer to as WeWatch, who will eventually apply for a membership with ANFREL. Currently, organizations from 17 Asian countries are involved with the network. 
 
On Wednesday, 18 May 2016, Prachatai English interviewed Damaso shortly after he met with the Elections Commission of Thailand, where an agreement had been made to have ANFREL monitor the upcoming referendum vote. This will be ANFREL’s first referendum monitoring. 
 
The referendum vote, to be held on 7 August 2016, will allow the Thai population the opportunity to vote whether or not to pass a new draft constitution, and to vote whether or not an appointed senate should be granted the opportunity to choose the next prime minister, who will serve a five year term.  
 
Given the proven track record of ANFREL, this agreement may have come at a good time. Articles 10 and 61 of the controversial Public Referendum Act allow only the authorities to conduct campaigns to promote the draft constitution while limiting the rights and liberties of critics of the draft constitution. The EU Delegation has furthered this point by speaking out to Thailand insisting that free discussion is vital. 
 
Damaso G. Magbual
 
How was the meeting with the Thai Electoral Commission today (18 May)?  
 
It was very cordial. They said they would allow us to observe. They said we must write a letter of publication, which we will do, we must designate how many observers we will send, as we will do, and inform them of where we will want to deploy observers. 
 
We are very happy with that. We are pleased. They more or less know that one of the commissioners votes for our integrity as an election observation group.  He said ANFREL has been fair in their assessments in making reports on how they see elections. 
 
What do you think is the significance for the EC of Thailand to allow ANFREL to participate in this Referendum?
 
Election observation, somehow, has been contributory to improving the quality of elections in places where we observe. Too often, Asians in general, not just Thais, are sore losers when it comes to losing elections. There is a joke in the Philippines that candidates either win, or have been cheated. Nobody loses an election in Asia. So what is the value of Election observation?
 
When this Election Observation Group makes a review or assessment of the election, noting we are independent, we have no political agenda, we have no political interest when we go to observe, and we call it as we see it, the acceptance of the results is always better. Did you know that in Thailand’s 2011 election, we said this was an election that was very well ran by the EC?  So when you have an independent, non-partisan body with no political interest whatsoever saying that you ran a free and fair election, it facilitates acceptance of various sorts.   
 
In the event that political neutrality is not evident in the Elections Commission, what should the people do?
 
You will have to do what the Philippines did in 1986. What happened here was that we figured the election process would not be clean under Marcos, so the people watched each and every polling station. Vigilance is the answer. The people have to be involved. In 1986, for instance, we had people literally in every polling station. They accompanied the ballot box to the Municipal Hall, they stayed there and watched the counting, but of course, there was a prior campaign on the part of civil society that said “look, this is important, watch your vote. Your vote only has value if you safeguard it.” Internal vigilance is the price of democracy. 
 
According to the 17 countries you have observed, can you share some experience that can benefit the election and referendum of Thailand?
 
In a referendum, you decide on an issue, or a proposition as they call it in the United States, which you submit to the people. For example, a constitution is referred to as the basic law of the land. It is the mother law and from it, all laws must proceed. Any law that is inconsistent with the document cannot be considered a valid law, in fact.
 
It is so basic that people must participate, and must ratify it, so that they can claim ownership to the law. So what is important here is those who vote, the citizens, must be well informed. They must know the provisions of the law: does it protect civil and political rights, does it guarantee basic rights like the freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech; these are basic human rights. Are the rights there? Does it define structures of government?
 
It isn’t the job of an election observer to consider what is or is not in the referendum. As an election monitoring organization, we are interested in observing the process, mainly. When I say process, I mean: is the election conducted in accordance with international standards and norms as to what constitutes an election. Is there a free exchange of Ideas? Are the contending able to deliver their messages to the voters? Can the contending parties freely move around to promote the positions of their candidates on a given issue? 
 
What do you think about the August Referendum of Thailand, given the fact that there are some legal limitations and mechanisms that obstruct  the people from freely discussing the draft constitution and the referendum?
 
I heard about that, I also heard the side of the government, so I do not want to make a judgement on that because that would interfere with our work. What I can say is, No. 1 - we start from the legal framework Thailand has for the referendum law. We then conduct the referendum monitoring in accordance with that. No. 2 - we will take a look at the basic rights of the voter. Is he allowed to go and cast his vote, free from intimidation? No. 3 - will his vote be counted properly and accurately so that the results will be reflective of the will of the people.
 
Here are the concerns of the Election Observer. Does the public have access to information that will help them to decide; that is a basic right. The right to free speech also means the right to receive information freely, so if I am a civil society activist, or head of a civil society organization, or for that matter the commissioner of the Election, am I free to present my views or discussions to the public to help them make an informed choice. So you have for instance, people who boast the constitution and draft, and people who oppose the draft and constitution, you should be able to hear both sides. 
 
How will you conduct the observation in general. What does the process look like? How long does it take?
 
We have two types of observers. We have the long term (LT) observers. Normally they stay for a month in one place. Then there are the short term (ST) observers who are usually there for 10 days.  The LT observers meet with media, with voters, with people who oppose it, with people who support it, with other organizations involved with the election, and even with the ordinary voter. We interact and engage with them. They will study parts of the election commission right down to the local level. The preparations, the electoral rolls etc. 
 
The ST observers will come in and get information from the LT observers. The LT observers are normally fielded carefully. We will field LT observers where we feel you would expect certain difficulties or problems. In 2011, when we came here, we fielded LT observers in the south because of the conflict. We also fielded observers in highly partisan areas, like in the north where the Reds come from, and in Bangkok, where you have more support for the establishment, or in the south where you have the democrats, the yellows, who are predominantly in control. Why? To get a better assessment of the political climate; the conditions.
 
Now similarly with the referendum, we will do the same. You may have certain regions that are too passionately against it, and some sectors of societies who are avidly for it. We will go to find out and ask them “Why do you support it so passionately” or “Why do you oppose it so passionately”. From there, we will make an assessment in our report. We will say this is keeping up with international standards, or not, but we always cite principals. 
 
For example, secrecy of the vote is a guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human rights, which Thailand is a signatory of; these are the things we look at. 
 
Did you observe the Constitutional Referendum in Myanmar in 2008? 
 
We did not observe that referendum, but we did give our comments. For instance, how could they possibly generate 98 per cent voter turnout when there was a Typhoon that devastated the Irrawaddy? It was impossible! How could they possibly have taken a very high yes vote, when in fact we know the sentiments against the military establishment, the junta, was building up.
 
Does ANFREL do official and unofficial observations? If so, what’s the difference?
 
We don’t do unofficial observation because we always seek accreditation. See, I like to dispel misconceptions, although some see us as ‘fault finders’.  No, we share the same values and goals as the Election Commission (EC). The EC wants the elections to be free, credible, and fair. We also do that. It’s just that we have different perspectives. The EC, of course, has a very focused orientation. They must work within the framework of the law of the land. We have a wider perspective, in that, we look at it not only in the point of view of the law of the land, but at the same time we gauge it with international standards. 
 
Let me cite an example to make myself clear; and I was criticized by the Singaporean government for this. Singapore came out to the law in 2001, I think, I’m not sure of the date, but they came out with a law that said “Singaporeans outside, working and living outside of Singapore cannot vote.” However, the law also said who can vote in consulates outside of the country. Those outside of the country because they are representing the Singaporean government, those who are working with an agency, like the embassies in other countries, those working with agencies that have relationships with the Singaporean government, let us say the United Nations, or those who are working with International organizations recognized by the Singaporean government, like the International Labour Organization, could still vote. This is saying that if you are a grad student in Canada or America, for example, you cannot vote. 
 
That’s not fair because if you are in an embassy, it’s the government that sent you. If you are in the UN, it is the government that most likely sent you there, so who will you vote for? If you work with an international agency that works closely with the government, who will you most likely vote for? The government! So the law was cooked up to favour the ruling party, and we pointed that out. For them, it is legal because it is the law, for us, it is not fair, it is not free.
 
We see to it that the laws of the land are followed, but at the same time, we will express our position by assessing or basing it on if it meets international standards.
 

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