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Give Thailand’s democracy a chance

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In Brief

Thailand went ahead with the polls on 2 February despite a boycott by the opposition Democrat Party and blockades by anti-government protestors. Unsurprisingly, the election failed to resolve the political deadlock. Yet despite the as-yet incomplete and inconclusive poll results, electoral democracy ironically works in Thailand.


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The opposition boycotted the polls because it believed the outcome would only perpetuate the influence of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in Thai politics. But preliminary results released by the Election Commission of Thailand show that the self-exiled tycoon can be defeated at the ballot box.

Out of 43 million eligible voters in Thailand, only 20 million or about 47.3 per cent cast their ballots, according to preliminary results. An estimated 8 per cent of voters checked the ‘no vote’ box on the ballot sheet (up from 3 per cent in the last election in 2011) while an estimated 5.7 per cent of the votes were spoiled (up from 4.3 per cent in 2011).

Most anti-government protesters expressed their political stances by staying away from the ballot box altogether. And yet, contrary to what many analysts have expected, the ruling Pheu Thai Party did not garner a majority of votes. It won only a third of the valid votes cast, according to preliminary estimates.

The election is the first time a political party under Thaksin’s control, fronted by his nominees, has failed to win an outright majority.

It is a remarkable outcome given that Thaksin’s political vehicles won by crushing margins in five previous polls in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011. The voter turnout rates for these five elections averaged around 70 per cent.

In the December 2007 election, which took place after Thaksin was overthrown in the September 2006 coup, the margin between Thaksin’s People’s Power Party and the Democrat Party was the closest. Each side garnered 37 per cent of the popular vote, although the overall number of constituency and party-list seats favoured Thaksin’s party by a margin of 233 to 165 in a 480-member lower house.

But by July 2011, despite having been in power for two and half years, the Democrat Party lost to Thaksin’s Pheu Thai by 265 to 159, when the national assembly reverted to 500 members. The party-list count was expanded to 125 from 100 lawmakers to give the Democrat Party better odds. Yet Pheu Thai still surpassed the Democrat Party by a margin of 61 to 44 on the party-list votes.

The most telling indicator at that time was the voter turnout. Between 2001 and 2011, the average nationwide voter turnout was 71 per cent. But the voter participation rate fell to 47 per cent at the 2 February election. For Bangkok, where average turnout usually tracks the national figures closely, only 26 per cent came out to vote — an unsurprising outcome in view of strong anti-government sentiments in the capital.

The situation in the Pheu Thai Party’s heartlands in the north and northeast regions is worth highlighting. In these two regions, which account for more than half of the national electorate, turnout barely exceeded 50 per cent, according to preliminary results.

An overwhelmingly high turnout of more than the 70 per cent in these two regions, on the other hand, would have boded well for Pheu Thai and would be seen as a form of protest against the anti-election campaign of the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

The relatively low turnout of just over 50 per cent in the north and northeast, which used to clock turnout rates of around 75 per cent in past elections, is a setback for the ruling party. It shows that Pheu Thai’s support in the north and northeast has been dented — a sign that the effects of Thaksin’s populist policies are wearing off.

Despite a low voter turnout of 47 per cent, the significance of the 2 February vote should not be understated. It allowed the 20-million-strong pro-election bloc to finally exercise their democratic right at the ballot box. It gave them a chance to have their say following months of continuous brinkmanship and turmoil in Bangkok.

If the election had been postponed or cancelled, their frustration and disenchantment may have boiled over. The result could be more people taking to the streets, heightening the risk of more violence in the country.

For those who did not cast their vote, the message that they are sending is equally important. A comparison with the voter turnout rates in past elections indicates a drop of around 23 percentage points this year even though the circumstances are remarkably different. Had this group of voters turned up last Sunday, chances are many of their votes would have gone to opposition parties such as the Democrat Party.

There are several reasons to explain the low turnout. One could be the PDRC’s efforts to thwart the 2 February election and expose the alleged failings of the Yingluck government. A spate of corruption scandals, the unsustainability of the rice subsidy scheme, and the controversial amnesty and senate amendment bills have raised awareness of a need for better check-and-balance mechanisms.

Many abstaining voters are also likely fed up with the political crisis that has gripped the country for years. Or maybe they felt intimidated by the threats issued by the PDRC and had feared for their personal safety.

Even though the full results are not out yet, one clear message has emerged. For the ruling Pheu Thai party and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Thaksin, staying in office by dominating elections can no longer be taken for granted.

However, the PDRC protesters did not win either as the election took place despite its vow to prevent it. The Democrat Party might have done better than expected had it chose to participate in the election — boycotting it (for the second time in four elections) may have been a strategic miscalculation by its leaders.

Thailand’s precarious electoral democracy can be made into the ultimate winner if previous electoral losers realise that they have a chance of winning future elections. They need to work harder and play within the rules of the game instead of holding the country hostage through crippling street protests.

If Thai democracy takes a detour or is derailed, it will be difficult for the Thai people to find a way back. It is better to fix the system from within than to look for a panacea from outside. Otherwise, Thailand may find itself lost in a political wilderness.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Associate Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. A version of this article appeared in The Straits Times.

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