Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Three days after Thailand’s March 24 election, observers are calling it “flawed”. This was Thailand’s first election in eight years, and the country remains trapped in political uncertainty as it could take six weeks for a definitive result to be announced.

With 94% of votes apparently counted on election day, Thailand’s Election Commission is in chaos. At a press conference held on March 25, which had been intended to announce a preliminary result, election authorities announced more delays until at least March 29 — when only 350 of the 500 lower house seats will be announced — with final results not to be unveiled until May 9.

So the poll, carefully designed and gerrymandered by the ruling military junta to once more give the coup d’etat-prone country a veneer of democracy, has had quite the opposite effect.

There have been about 20 coups since Thailand moved from absolute to constitutional monarchy in 1932 — 13 of them successful.

In report released on March 25, The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) noted that the “tabulation and consolidation of ballots were deeply flawed” and concluded that such issues had led to the announcement of some preliminary results that were “wildly inaccurate” and which damaged the “perceived integrity of the general election”. Still, the group told reporters there was no reason to believe the reporting problems would affect the overall results.

Other observers — along with exiled former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who controls the political party Pheu Thai — have cast doubt on whether the election was free and fair, and there have been widespread allegations of ballot box stuffing with some provinces reporting many more votes than registered voters and other irregularities causing a storm on social media. The Electoral Commission has issued a range of excuses, which range from a missing calculator to computer hacking.

The Thai government did not accredit any official international media because they said they did not need any.

Initial results released late on March 24 appear to show the newly formed pro-military Palang Pracha Rath Party (PPRP) — whose candidate for prime minister is incumbent and former coup leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha — has gained the largest share of the popular vote.

But the PPRP’s arch rival Pheu Thai, which has won every election since 2001, appears to have won the most seats overall; gaining 138 to PPRP’s 98 in Sunday’s preliminary results. The party with the most seats should have the right to form a coalition, experts have said.

A third political force — in the shape of the Future Forward Party run by a charismatic wealthy businessman Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit — has emerged with 73 seats, pushing Pheu Thai’s more traditional rival, the loyalist Democratic Party, into distant fourth place with 43 seats. This poor performance led long-time leader and former prime minister “Mark” Abhisit Vejjajiva, long seen as an ineffectual operator, to step down.

The major players are now scurrying to seal coalitions. Pheu Thai is expected to announce a coalition, which would include Future Forward, holding a total of 252 seats on March 27, but the PPRP is also trying to cobble together a coalition.

This could result in a situation where the successful candidate for prime minister is not from the government. The prime minister elected must have a majority of the 750 parliamentarians, 500 from the popularly elected Legislative Assembly and 250 from the military-appointed Senate.

The junta seized power in the May 2014 coup, following six months of orchestrated anti-government street protests. That coup marked the end of 13 years of on-again-off-again democratic rule by parties led by the Shinawatra family (first billionaire and former policemen Thaksin in 2001 and again in 2006, and, from 2011-2014, his sister Yingluck). Both fled the country about 10 years apart, after being victims of military coups, and remain living overseas for fear of arrest under active warrants.

Ahead of the election, the ruling military junta pushed through a new constitution. This gave it power to appoint the Senate, previously a popularly elected body, set up the new rules for electing a prime minister (previously the prerogative of the party with the most seats in the lower house) and it also dramatically changed electoral rules to a mixture of direct (350, the result that will be handed down March 29) and proportional (150 “list” seats) representation. This includes direct election of three representatives per seat.

All this makes it very difficult for one party to win a majority.

In a further extraordinary development, Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn — who will finally hold his coronation on May 4-6, 18 months after succeeding his father King Bhumipol — issued an unprecedented statement on the eve of the poll calling for voters to elect “good people” not “bad people”.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s people appear stuck with what ANFREL described as “a form of guided democracy rather than a fully-fledged democracy”.

Peter Fray

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