Thai polls have army stamp all over

The first parliamentary election to be held in Thailand since last year’s army coup is generating excitement for the wrong reasons. Political parties, the media and analysts are up in arms over a raft of restrictions imposed on candidates for the Dec 23 poll.

Under the new rules announced by the election commission (EC) the customary festive air of a campaign, where a prospective parliamentarian is feted with a public parade to

promote his or her candidacy once the race officially begins, is banned. Also deemed illegal is the practice of candidates enlisting popular figures from the world of film, music and

entertainment to boost their campaigns.

For this poll, say the commissioners, the broadcast media will not be able to exercise editorial judgement as to which candidate they want to feature in a news programme or an interview ahead of the election. Even the country’s universities have not been spared. They will not be able to conduct the pre-election seminars and discussions with select candidates, a practice that has helped to feed the political debate and generate more information about the issues at stake

The current EC is being accused of exceeding its mandate and the role expected of an election monitoring body that has been shaped since the first commission was created after the country’s 1997 constitution. “Such an attempt to micromanage the election is unprecedented,” Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said. “It is an attempt to limit electioneering and the open discussion of politics that is normal in any election campaign.”

The questionable climate ahead of the polls comes at an awkward moment for the country’s junta and its pro-military government and sympathisers. The forthcoming election has been billed by the ruling class as its commitment to restore Thailand’s credentials as another democracy in South-east Asia. On Saturday, the military-appointed Prime Minister, Gen Surayud Chulanont, urged the country’s 45 million voters to come out in strength at the December ballot during his weekly radio broadcast.

Thailand’s exclusion from the international family of democracies was not what the country’s military leaders had in mind when they mounted the putsch in September 2006 to drive from power the twice-elected former PM Thaksin. The country’s 18th coup was

justified by the junta as an attempt to help restore the democratic culture that they said Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai) party had destroyed during over five years in government.

Yet in the months since, the space for a free and open political environment has come under threat by laws, verdicts and rules imposed by supposedly independent institutions, such as the EC. The mid-August plebiscite to approve the new constitution was replete with a host of anti-democratic measures, ranging from political parties forced to play a diminished role to rules that threatened arrests of people campaigning against the referendum.

“The thinking behind the election commission’s decisions is the same as the junta — they do not want the Thai Rak Thai or the party representing it to return to power,” says Giles. “What they fail to realise is that the coup which overthrew an elected government destroyed Thai democracy in the first place.” — IPS