Thailand’s Election Commission has asked the caretaker government of interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to postpone the general election scheduled for February 2, voicing its concern over “violence and chaos” amid the ongoing anti-election protests.
The Election Commission of Thailand (EC) is responsible for holding elections and to ensure that these take place legally and fairly. The EC consists of five commissioners, who are elected by a special committee (including the head of the Constitutional Court) and confirmed by the senate. Since the military coup of 2006, the commission has held two nationwide elections in 2007 and 2011 and in both cases re-incarnations of toppled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s party have won.
Now, after a new set of five commissioners was confirmed on December 13, 2013, just a few days after Thaksin’s sister and caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck dissolved parliament and called for snap-elections on February 2, the Election Commission seems more than reluctant to have another one.
The first signs appeared right after Yingluck’s announcement to dissolve the House, when one of the commissioners, Sodsri Satayathum, expressed some doubt:
The election commission is ready to hold elections, but I’m not sure whether the political groups want to hold it or not. If the political groups are not ready for an election, there’s no use for the election commission to do it.
“Thai Premier Rejects Demands That She Quit“, New York Times, December 10, 2013
What then followed was a series of contradictory statements, a back and forth between different commissioners and in general a farcical performance by a government agency that is supposed to take care of the election process, but is apparently unwilling to do so.
BANGKOK, Dec 17 – Newly-appointed Election Commission (EC) chairman Supachai Somcharoen stands firm that a snap poll must be held on February 2.
He said the EC is obliged to organise the general election as imposed in the royal decree and the candidacy applications, set for December 23-27, will be held as scheduled despite a protesters’ threat to hold a rally at the registration sites.
“Election commissioner firm on Feb 2 general election“, MCOT, December 17, 2013
BANGKOK, Dec 19 – Thailand’s Election Commission (EC) today urged the government and protesting groups to hold talks on postponing the February 2 general election. (…)
Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, one of the five commissioners in charge of election administration, admitted that it is difficult to hold a smooth election amid the present political climate and possible chaos. “This is an abnormal situation. All factions should hold talks for a smooth election. Don’t take February 2 as a condition or restriction (for political resolutions). (…)” he said.
“Election Commission hints at postponing Feb2 election“, MCOT, December 19, 2013
BANGKOK, Dec 20 – The Election Commission (EC) announced today to go ahead with a snap poll on February 2 amid escalating calls for national reform before such an election.
EC chairman Supachai Somcharoen said after meeting with caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that the EC did not offer to mediate among different factions in light of political conflicts. He said the prime minister and election commissioners agreed that an election is essential and should be held fairly but the EC would not give its opinions whatsoever.
“Election Commission goes ahead with Feb 2 election“, MCOT, December 20, 2013
The EC then organised the candidacy registration at the Thai-Japanese Stadium sports complex in the Bangkok district of Din Daeng, despite repeated threats by the protesters to disrupt the week-long process. That was what exactly happened and the situation escalated almost immediately some protesters sparked violent clashes, causing the death of one protester and one police officer (the circumstances of his death initially unclear), and later seized the registration location in order to bar everybody from entering.
Despite the possibility to move elsewhere in order to avoid the protesters the EC decided to keep the registration location where it was. After the violence in Bangkok and disruptions by protesters at registrations in 28 districts in the southern provinces (to which there would be no extension period) the commission then said the elections should be called off.
The flip-flopping by the EC continued in the new year when the election was confirmed by a commissioner and the secretary-general, only then to be put in doubt again a week later after the auditor-general urged the Election Commission to reconsider whether holding the February 2 election is worth the estimated 3.8bn Baht ($116m). On January 10, Isara News Agency reported first that the EC was going to submit an urgent letter to Prime Minister Yingluck, asking her to issue “a royal decree postponing the elections,” echoing the auditor-general’s sentiment that under the current circumstances it would a huge “waste of state funds”. However, tha was denied by the EC secretary-general. But a few hours later then…
The EC has confirmed it has written to govt asking it to postpone the election.
— Jonathan Head (@pakhead) January 10, 2014
So #Thai Election Commission is SPLIT on whether they have written to govt to request delay in Feb 2 election.
— Jonathan Head (@pakhead) January 10, 2014
Responding to the Election Commission’s letter, Prime Minister Yingluck invited the EC, all political parties (incl. the boycotting Democrat Party) and the anti-election protesters themselves to discuss a possible election postponement. But none of the opposition showed up and the commissioners sent their secretary-general to the meeting and Yingluck announced that the elections would go ahead on February 2.
Then, the Election Commission invited Yingluck to attend a meeting on Friday. However, commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn couldn’t resist to include that quip:
นายสมชัยระบุว่า (…) ถ้าหากยังไม่มาก็จะส่งจดหมายเชิญไปอีก จะเปลี่ยนโรงแรมที่นัดคุยไปเรื่อยๆ ซึ่งสุดท้ายอาจจะเป็นโรงแรมโฟร์ซีซั่นส์ นายกฯ ก็อาจจะมาหารือ
Mr. Somchai said (…) “if she [PM Yingluck] doesn’t come, we’ll still send out invites, keep changing hotels to meet until we finally [zeroed in on] the Four Seasons Hotel. May be then she’ll come, no?”
“ตะลึง! “กกต.สมชัย” งัดโฟร์ซีซั่นส์เหน็บ “ปู”“, Khaosod, January 16, 2014
The Four Seasons Hotel is a reference to a heavily rumored (and still unproven) private issue concerning the prime minister. It begs the question why a high-level official like Somchai is making such a statement. Looking back at the series of flip-flops and contradictory remarks, we have to wonder what role the Election Commission is playing here? Because by the looks it, we should not ask how the election can be delayed, but rather if the Election Commission wants to hold one at all?
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and reports for international news media like Channel NewsAsia. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.