By KAS CHANWANPEN
METICULOUS and stringent rules governing campaigning for the March 24 general election may restrict freedom of expression as well as voters’ right to information, experts say.
The Royal Decree published in the Royal Gazette on Wednesday means the election will take place in 60 days. It also gave the green light for electoral campaigns to kick off. But instead of actively wooing voters online, many politicians seemed to have retreated from their social media sites for fear of violating the campaign rules drawn up by the Election Commission (EC).
The rules, for instance, stipulate that any online media channel used for the campaign must be registered with the EC. Failure to comply is a crime punishable by up to six months in prison and up to a Bt10,000 fine.
Sudarat Keyuraphan, Pheu Thai Party’s head of election strategy, has been inactive on Facebook since Wednesday. She announced that she would not return to the platform until she had notified the EC of her online campaign tool.
Many other politicians from parties across the political spectrum posted similar messages.
Authorities yesterday also warned politicians that they could be in breach of the law for erecting campaign placards on streets. They were advised to take them down in five days otherwise they could face legal action for breaching the cleanliness and order law.
Authorities were also discussing how and where parties and politicians could place leaflets and placards in line with the EC’s orders.
Only Thai Raksa Chart Party’s core leader Chaturon Chaisang defied the trend.
He wrote on Facebook on Wednesday soon after the hasty retreat by the others: “I’ve been advised to stop making comments or even temporarily shut down my Facebook page. But please be informed that I’m ready to obey the laws while I also uphold my right to freedom of expression.
“So, I insist on running the page and making comments. For starters, I’ll criticise the EC tomorrow.”
Writing again on Facebook yesterday, Chaturon said the EC should be clear about the definition of “election campaign”. The agency can prohibit politicians from persuading people to vote for particular candidates but they should not be banned from expressing their opinions, which is freedom of speech, Chaturon said.
He also said he understood the EC’s efforts to ensure all parties had equal resources. The election rules are aimed at ensuring a level playing field for the contestants.
But providing all parties the same chance to speak to the public on a designated television programme was unappealing and, in the end, no party would benefit from this because there would be no audience, he said.
Voters would also lose the chance to be informed of policy proposals, Chaturon added. The politician suggested that the EC revise the strict rules and regulations governing campaigning. Political scientist Siriphan Noksuan Sawasdee expressed similar concerns in a recent forum on the election.
Parties and politicians are presented with a difficult problem in the election campaign, she pointed out. “[The rules] are full of traps,” she said.
Regulations that limit the number of campaign assistants and the areas where candidates can erect placards or place leaflets limit the chance for the voters to get to know their potential representatives, Siriphan explained.
The big question is who would benefit from this restriction. The political scientist said that former MPs who are already familiar with the voters would have an advantage over newcomers who would not have as much opportunity to present themselves to the voters.