Thai elections: no speeches and less tolerance of fraud

Yesterday, election officials said more candidates could be disqualified for fraud, a radical move in Thailand.

In a nation that has known 17 military coups in the past 50 years, this most recent upheaval has been a relatively quiet affair.

There were no guns, no tanks in the street, no martial music on television and radio.

The change this time is being wrought by sober bureaucrats, not brash men in military uniform. But as they shake up the political establishment, they are being treated to a measured drumroll.

In March, the newly formed Election Commission disqualified 78 of 200 candidates for cheating in Thailand's first-ever senatorial polls. Yesterday, they claimed persuasive evidence of more fraud in the rerun elections against the unofficial winners in 11 of Thailand's 76 provinces. Analysts are calling this determined enforcement of law a revolution in the political order.

Since the Senate cannot sit without a full quota of 200 members, it now looks as though Thailand's voters will be asked to go back and cast their ballots for a record third time.

At one level, this is evidence of politics as usual. Elections here have long been marred by vote-buying and manipulation. Pre-election billboards habitually tell voters that "If You Love Democracy, Don't Sell Your Vote." But the "Old Guard" of Thai politics, with their money and influence, seemed unassailable.

Until now. The nemesis of electoral fraud has been a new Constitution, promulgated in October 1997.

Born of new constitutional rules, backed by a vibrant media, and buoyed by a public increasingly weary of corruption, bodies such as the Election Commission and a specially formed National Counter Corruption Commission are leading a crusade for reform.

"The new Constitution is certainly changing things," says Pasuk Phongpaichit a social analyst and professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "We have never had a Senate election. We have never had people disqualified for breaking rules. We have never had a single politician brought down by the official process."

The latest reformists have already won some impressive battles. At the beginning of April, Thailand's interior minister, Sanan Kachornprasart, was an early casualty. The powerful minister, known as a "kingmaker" in the murky world of Thai politics, was forced to resign his post after the National Counter Corruption Commission filed charges that he had falsified financial statements regarding his personal wealth.

Tearful before the nation's media, the interior minister denied that he had ever used his position for personal gain. For Thais, his resignation represented a constitutional first. Never before had such a powerful politician been so humbled by the rule of law.

But while they're surely right to rock the boat, Thailand's reformers have also drawn flak for sometimes taking their crusade too far.

In a move to ensure a fair race in the run-up to the recent senatorial ballot, the Election Commission decided it was best to muzzle all the players, creating a level playing field.

Candidates were banned from promoting themselves, from explaining their ideas or policies, and even from using a microphone to broadcast their views.

But while it created an even playing field, Thai voters were left to sort through a confusing collage of campaign posters showing a candidate's portrait and his number. "My father told me I should choose candidate 208," says office worker Wanphen Kamwaboon. "But I don't have the faintest idea what he stands for."

For their part, senatorial hopefuls were left to whisper and hint as to what they might stand for if elected.

"Have you ever heard of elections where the candidates can't say what they stand for," grumbled a provincial official just before the vote last weekend. "We put a stage up for the candidates to present themselves to the people, but nobody turned up. They're afraid of breaking the rules. There's been virtually no campaign."

If the measures look extreme, the extent of corruption in the political establishment may well justify the approach, political analysts say.

But as Thais look ahead to national parliamentary elections later this year, they are asking themselves how many rounds it will take to fill the lower house with 500 corruption-free representatives.

And if, as the apathy at last weekend's rerun suggests, fewer and fewer people will turn out to vote and Thailand's reformers may find themselves facing a bizarre democratic twist: They'll have cleaner elections but fewer voters.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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