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Can we eradicate political influence on elections?

Dec 22. 2016
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By Piyaporn Wongruang
The Nation

In an attempt to eradicate political influence on provincial election committee members, charter drafters working on organic laws have proposed that the committees be replaced by unprecedented “ad hoc election inspectors”.

Chief drafter Meechai Ruchupan told journalists on Wednesday that the idea for electoral inspectors had arisen in response to the embattled Election Commission (EC)’s observation that the provincial committees of mostly civil servants were influenced by politicians. 

As such, the lawmakers had decided to replace them with independent inspectors, he said.

Apparently realising the proposal would cause friction, Meechai stressed that the Constitution Drafting Commission was still open to further recommendations regarding the issue. 

The issue is indeed crucial, since it involves a central pillar of regulation for elections, which are the gateway to democracy that citizens aspire to.

The government has set a firm deadline of next year for the first general election since the coup of 2014, and is sticking to that road map even as necessary reform remains an unfinished process.

Provincial election offices have for years acted as the EC’s “hands”, tasked with ensuring elections run smoothly and with minimal fraud. They are also empowered to investigate suspected election rigging, with authority that matches that of the central body.

The only problem with these offices is that their members are mostly picked from designated areas and, as such, are prone to forging close ties with politicians and being swayed by their influence. 

This tendency will definitely affect elections and the return to democracy, which is why it is now getting attention.

EC member Somchai Srisuthiyakorn has probably been the most vocal on the issue, insisting that the agency’s provincial committees should be preserved and vowing to ask the CDC to reconsider.

He dismissed claims that provincial representatives were not independent, arguing that there was no concrete evidence to support such an allegation. 

Somchai added that the notion that ad hoc inspectors would not be swayed by politicians was mere wishful thinking. Politicians, in his view, would do anything to protect their interests, and there was no guarantee that the inspectors would not be free from political influence.

“The ad hoc inspectors would work only for two months at a time. There would be no continuity and they could lack responsibility. This is a loophole through which someone in the political sphere could get in – and it would be impossible to bring disciplinary proceedings against them,” Somchai said.

Somchai’s view has validity, especially given that his agency needs the help of local hands to organise elections. But what the EC may have forgotten is that accountability and transparency in local elections has been missing for too long – which likely accounts for the significant popularity gained by the new proposal.

The truth is that any body empowered to conduct investigations into election fraud while at the same time acting a check-and-balance mechanism will inevitably lack the division of power that ensures accountability and transparency, thus putting itself at risk of becoming the tool of political influence.

Opportunity is knocking on the door with this new round of organic-law drafting, and both the EC and the CDC cannot afford to get bogged down in minor issues like logistics and old grievances. It is time to seize this chance to ensure that accountability and transparency are firmly in place for elections, no matter what bodies are charged with ensuring it happens.

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