By The Nation
Like it or not, Thailand badly needs international observers at the election in February, for the sake of its own credibility and legitimacy.
Scepticism at official claims the vote will be free and fair is soaring, since it is plain that the ruling junta sees the election merely as a means to perpetuate its power.
First, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who claimed to have staged the 2014 coup simply to end political fighting among warring factions, has long since shown his true colours. Instead of retiring from the scene having accomplished his mission, the former Army chief has taken a liking to power, declaring recently that he wanted the top job in government for the rest of his life.
Second, Prayut and his junta have spent the past four years creating what a scholar recently termed a “hierarchical capitalist regime” – an alliance between the military elite and big business for the benefit of a narrow clique. The promised reform for the benefit of the people has meanwhile failed to emerge.
The junta’s pet Pracharat welfare programme was formed to transfer national budget via the hands of the poor into the coffers of large business conglomerates. Prayut’s administration hands money to the poor to buy goods and services from the rich. He and his government take the political credit while the big companies benefit on the financial side.
That credit has now been cynically transferred to a pro-junta political party, launched under the same name as the junta’s welfare programme. Though newly minted, the Palang Pracharat Party (PPP) is already acting like a beneficent surrogate of the government as it seeks to woo voters.
Third, the Election Commission (EC), though set up under junta rule, is supposed to be an independent body responsible for ensuring a free and fair vote. Instead there are credible reasons for believing that it is merely an instrument designed to help the ruling party to win the election. The EC recently redrew constituency boundaries in a way that appears to favour the PPP.
While campaign portraits of the prime minister and his Cabinet are on view all over the country to aid voter recognition, images of former premiers Chuan Leekpai, Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra are prohibited by the EC. The latter are, of course, former leaders of contesting political parties.
Fourth, while some political restrictions were lifted last week, pro-junta politicians have more freedom than their rivals. Political activists remain under close watch and are still being prosecuted for protests against the junta over the past four years.
Fifth, senior politicians have accused the junta of using state bodies and officials to manipulate the ballot casting and voters in upcountry provinces.
Hence, the scrutiny of international independent observers is badly needed to secure the election from actions of cheating and fraud. Their presence during February’s vote would help the Thai people monitor polling and also the actions of those in power. The first Thai election since the invalidated poll of 2014 cannot produce a fair winner with a legitimate mandate unless endorsed by the international community.
Thailand’s international reputation has suffered severe damage from two military coups in less than a decade. Their resulting regimes have taken the country backwards, eroding our standing and legitimacy on the world stage.
A strong international standing will be crucial if Thailand is to be effective in its role chairing Asean next year. That standing would be severely weakened by the embarrassing spectacle of an unfair election that brings Prayut and his crew back to power in February. Minus international acceptance, how could the new Thai administration guide Asean forwards?
The junta and its government should welcome international observers to monitor the coming election. As its supporters are so fond of saying, “If there is nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear.”