Polling observers criticise repressive pre-referendum environment

Relatively transparent polling practices on the day of the August 2016 referendum are unlikely to compensate for the distortion to results caused by a repressive pre-polling environment, said foreign polling observers.
 
 
In a press release on Tuesday, 9 August 2016,  the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) stated that restrictions imposed on criticising the draft constitution in the lead up to the referendum were so severe that the genuine outcome is ‘a question for which we may never have a definitive answer’. 
ANFREL observed that in the lead-up to the referendum, civil society organisations and ordinary citizens were discouraged from questioning the draft constitution, which was ultimately accepted by the referendum, out of fear of repression from authorities. 
 
In contrast, it was noted that extensive government resources were utilized to promote the junta-backed documents. Limited access to information about both the draft constitution’s contents and the polling process may have also contributed to the only modest voter turnout. 
 
ANFREL stated that the severe restrictions on free speech during the pre-referendum period figured into the organisation’s decision to only perform random spot checks at polling stations on the day, as opposed to the deployment of a full and long-term election observation mission. The repressive pre-referendum environment was enough to render the referendum ‘inconsistent with universally accepted democratic principles and values for conducting a referendum/election’.  
 
ANFREL praised the Election Commission for the general transparency of the polling process on the day of the referendum itself, with members of the public allowed to witness polling and ballot counting. 
 
However other election watchdog and observation organisations did report worrying irregularities at the polling stations. ANFREL stated that the presence of regular election monitors, as have been deployed in previous Thai elections, would have enhanced the credibility of the referendum. 
 
ANFREL has now joined other civil society organisations in calling upon Thai authorities to follow the referendum with free and credible elections. However the Constitution Drafting Committee has warned that elections may be postponed from 2017 until early 2018.