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Thai election

Thai Election Commission takes heat for troubled vote count

Bungled figures and other glitches lead to impeachment calls

A voter casts their ballot for the general election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2019.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's embattled Election Commission has up to 60 days to finalize the results of Sunday's general election -- the country's first in eight years -- but some critics of its idiosyncratic process and opaque proportional representation formulas have delivered verdicts sooner.

"Can you imagine an election, and for two months we still don't have a result?" Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a senior Thammasat University academic, asked reporters on Thursday. "It happens only in Thailand."

The preliminary results for 350 constituency seats in the parliament's lower house are already known, but the chamber's remaining 150 seats distributed based on party lists are not expected to be confirmed before May 9.

Anti-junta parties appeared headed for a slight majority in the lower house even though Raksa Chart, a party loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled prime minister removed by a coup in 2006, was recently banned.

Thaksin's main party, Pheu Thai, has the largest number of seats, followed by the pro-military Phalang Pracharat. The field is fragmented, however, with the top ten parties all gaining more than 10% of the vote. 

Intense backroom dealmaking is expected in the coming weeks while investors hold their breath. The final results will emerge after the elaborate three-day coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, which begins May 4.

The much delayed election was postponed from February after the palace on Jan. 1 unexpectedly announced the coronation timing -- apparently blindsiding the Election Commission and the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Equipped with an arsenal of red, yellow, orange, and black cards, the Election Commission will investigate allegations of irregularities over the coming weeks, holding any by-elections it deems necessary on April 28. The most serious offenses will be referred to the courts.

Only after the final election results are announced can the names of the 250 people handpicked by the military to serve in the Senate be submitted to the king for his signature. The senators are key to choosing the next prime minister, as that individual needs at least 376 votes from the combined 750 members of the upper and lower houses. An unelected prime minister is one possibility. 

Confidence in the Election Commission was shaken further on Thursday when it announced that Sunday's turnout totaled 74.69%. The commission had given a preliminary figure of just 65.96% on Monday. In most countries, this figure would be available with acceptable accuracy within hours of the polls closing.

Thailand encountered the same problem in a national constitutional referendum held in mid-2016. The reasonably credible 59.4% turnout was initially reported at a much more lackluster level of under 55% -- confusing much of the early poll analysis.

Various other problems with Election Commission figures have occurred this time: A party name was missing from one list, and over 1,500 overseas ballots from New Zealand were disqualified after arriving late.

But the most critical problem appears to be the 5.57% of votes cast that were invalidated -- over 2 million among some 38 million ballots from the nation's 51 million eligible voters.

Though this rate was slightly lower than in 2011, when 5.79% of votes were invalidated amid a higher turnout of over 75%, it highlighted the scant progress in educating voters and other lingering problems.

Local media reported that university students nationwide had launched an online petition to impeach the Election Commission under the banner New Generation People for Social Change, which claimed to have drawn more than 800,000 signatures so far.

Despite the jockeying already underway among the parties, and the heavy speculation about possible coalitions, the government hopes that political tensions will abate as the country moves toward Songkran -- the Thai new year -- in mid-April and coronation-related ceremonies that begin later in the month.

A precedent of sorts for a political cooling-off period occurred in June 2006, when polarized factions set aside their differences during a constitutional crisis to mark the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's ascension to the throne. Sovereigns and other representatives of 25 royal families around the world were invited to Bangkok for the celebration.

However, the coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra followed soon after in September.

Though the latest turnout was lower than the 78.5% reached in 2007, when Thailand's previous junta actually yielded power to an elected civilian government, it at least confirmed strong popular support for democratic processes. This pressure continues despite the military's efforts to circumscribe the authority of future governments using the appointed Senate and other means.

The thirst for greater democracy remains evident, and the peaceful environment is significant. Two of the past five general elections were held under abnormal circumstances that affected turnout. But the remaining three produced an average turnout of 76.22% -- respectable by any standards, and a considerable improvement from the early 1980s when fewer than half of eligible voters participated.

Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, described the latest experiment in Thai democracy as "an election without integrity that will lead to a dead end."

But she did credit the Election Commission with some success in countering vote buying, noting how few accusations were made.

"This is unlike many previous elections," she told reporters in Bangkok. "Not many parties spread money around because they were afraid of red or yellow cards. This is good. Vote buying should not be an excuse to devalue elections. I hope this will continue."

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