Bangkok Governor Chadchart Sittipunt, left, with a tote bag made from a recycled campaign banner featuring his face. Recently, activist Srisuwan Janya filed a complaint with the Electoral Commission accusing the governor-elect of buying votes for the banners. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
In any respectable democratic system, a winning candidate who garners an overall majority of electoral support would take office as soon as possible. Not in Thailand. When Chadchart Sittipunt beat 29 rivals to garner 1.38 million or 51% of the vote in Bangkok’s gubernatorial election on May 22, the capital’s electorate had to hold their breath in suspense to see if and when the Electoral Commission (EC) would validate his runaway victory.
The assertion of EC authority after the recent vote in Bangkok reflects a broader pattern of politically motivated regulatory outcomes that may favor one side over the other. Working hand-in-hand with the Constitutional Court and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), the EC decided election results regardless of voter preferences, disbanding major political parties and banning representatives. It should be mentioned that many of them have stood on the opposite side of the conservative-military regime over the past 15 years.
The most recent political parties the EC dissolved were the Future Forward Party in February 2020 and Thai Raksa Chart a year earlier. The former came third with 6.3 million votes in the March 2019 general election, while the latter was on course to do well in the same poll before being ejected. The seven-member EC, Constitutional Court and NACC formed a team to whittle the numbers after the polls to come up with their preferred post-election government. If that wasn’t enough, outright dissolution of the parties was an option with a military takeover as a last resort.
This has happened time and time again, as seen with the military coup of September 2006, the dissolution of the largest parties in May 2007 and December 2008, another putsch in 2014, other dismantling parties in 2019-2020 and the rewriting of constitutions in 2007 and 2017.
This is how and why Thailand has a rickety, abysmal coalition government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the main putschist eight years ago. It is also how Jarungwit Pumma can easily transition from EC secretary general to senator a few weeks earlier this year, in what looked like a revolving door between these two coup-emergent bodies.
Beyond these three polling-related agencies, the offices of the Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the Anti-Money Laundering Bureau – overseen mainly by appointees during the time of the two coups – complete this conservative-military regulatory framework. As a result, elections resemble a nominating process in which voter preferences are considered, but the final arbiters decide who takes power. And it works that way.
As a rule, all kinds of post-election complaints are practically encouraged and all are accepted by the EC. These complaints of irregularities then become de facto buttons on which the EC can press.
Sometimes the CNAC can be the channel for complaints, working in tandem with the Constitutional Court. The burden of proof rests with the accused representatives and parties, with arbitrary powers reserved and exercised by these agencies, which multiplied before the coups of 2006 and 2014 but remained rather discreet since the takeovers by the parties. military and pro-military.
The results have been remarkable and hard to deny. Anti-military parties and elected officials were banned in one way or another, while pro-military factions proved immune and able to take office as they pleased. In fact, the assertion of authority by the EC, as well as that of the NACC and the Constitutional Court, has deeper roots dating back to April 2006, when judicial assertion – sometimes called “judicialization” – in the Thai politics started in earnest. Since then, Thailand has been politically turbulent and unstable.
In Mr Chadchart’s case, the complaints came from Srisuwan Janya, an incendiary activist whose motives are suspect to many. He filed a complaint with the EC alleging that Bangkok’s new governor campaigned using vinyl posters that could be reused, representing a transactional promise to voters and contravening an election law. Another accusation from an unclear source suggested that Mr Chadchart had insulted bureaucrats by indicating that they needed to get in shape.
To his credit, Mr. Chadchart played it cool. His response to campaigns of smear, defamation and potential intimidation from higher authorities has been to focus on working for the good of Bangkokians. This is a daunting task, as Bangkok mirrors Thailand at large in having stagnated and declined due to poor and incompetent governance for nearly two decades. The new governor will also have his work cut out for being so popular with the public.
The final arbiters of Thai elections have taken on popularly elected representatives and political parties in the recent past. There’s no reason why they can’t do the same to Mr. Chadchart. Their favorite version of Thailand envisions a split party system with poor governance and an unstable government. It is easier for institutions such as the military and the bureaucracy to retain power when alternative sources of popular legitimacy are weakened.
Mr Chadchart can only hope that being in charge of the capital rather than the whole country will minimize the risks he poses to supporters of the conservative-military regime. If Thailand was a ship, these elites don’t seem to care if it sinks, as long as they can stay on top and get off last. Promoting a ship that moves forward and can benefit everyone is detrimental to the interests of the conservative elite due to the inherent power shifts and the chances of lower layers rising up to have a say.
When the time comes, the politicized agencies regulating the polls must be reorganized. They were put in place with good intentions in the reform-oriented 1997 constitution, but have since been twisted and overturned. Their appointment processes must be independent and impartial. These election-related agencies should play a coordinating and facilitating role. At most, they can collectively be an arbiter to ensure fair play, but they should not be the judge overruling and overriding the people’s electoral choices.
A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY
Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, he obtained a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics with a thesis award in 2002. Recognized for his excellence in opinion writing by the Society of Publishers in Asia, his opinions and articles have been widely published by local and international media.