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Turbulent Thailand

Thai election campaigners confused by flurry of niggling rules

New regulations aim to keep poll clean and fair, but risk political turbulence

Former prime minister and leader of the Democrat Party Abhisit Vejjajiva campaigns in Samut Sakhon Province, Thailand. He has complained the new election rules are "trivial and overly complicated." (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

BANGKOK -- The Election Commission of Thailand has implemented a series of campaign restrictions ahead of candidate registration for the upcoming general election on March 24. The rules are meant to keep the poll clean and fair, but political specialists warn that they might cause political turbulence after the poll.

Since King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun issued a decree to hold a general election and the Election Commission announced the poll schedule on Jan. 23, the authority has been gradually introducing new campaign regulations. The most recent one came out on Monday.

Sawaeng Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of the commission, announced that each political party will be allowed to produce a 10-minute promotional video to be shown on national television, on the condition that broadcasters must give equal airtime to each party. The promotional videos will be aired starting March 8.

Sawaeng also said the Election Commission will host a show on which the parties will be able to debate their policies. The show will be distributed by the authority to broadcasters for airing from March 13 to 21.

The TV campaign rules followed a set of dos and don'ts released by the commission the previous week. Candidates must register any online media channels they will use in their campaigning. Violating the electronic campaigning regulations is punishable by up to six months in jail or a fine of up to 10,000 baht ($320).

Parties can put one placard at each of their offices or branches. The size is limited to 4 meters by 7.5 meters. Parties and politicians may not involve the monarchy in their campaigns. Their campaigns must be free of hate speech. Handing out cash or other valuables during the campaign is prohibited. 

These are only examples, along with other detailed and strict regulations. The Election Commission has good reason to be picky. Thais' patience is wearing thin about lack of transparency in the nation's politics. 

According to a survey conducted last week by the public graduate university National Institute of Development Administration, 78% of the respondents said they believed that Thai politics will be mired in vote-buying. This is compared to 19% who thought the election will be fraud-free. Some 3% were not sure if such corruption will take place. 

The complicated restrictions have already sparked confusion. Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of Thailand's Democrat Party, said last week that the party has submitted notifications to launch online campaigns, but they were rejected by some provincial offices of the Election Commission. The offices insisted that no election advertising could be permitted as no candidates were legally registered. Registration for candidates running for office is set from Feb. 4-8.

This contradicts the message the junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has been sending. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kreangam has been saying that political parties were free to campaign once the royal decree was issued. 

"We are more than willing to comply," said Abhisit. "But we must say that the restriction that Election Commission has imposed are trivial and overly complicated," he added.

Chaturon Chaisang, one of the leaders of Thaksin-linked anti-junta Thai Raksa Chart Party, said that strong regulations could lessen voters' opportunities to be informed of parties' policy proposals.

The specialists said the emerging confusion is nothing compared to what may come after the election. "Complicated regulations can end up with tens of yellow cards or red cards from the Election Commission," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "The rules are full of traps," she warned.

If a candidate in a given constituency receives a yellow card, a repeat election must be held there with the same candidates, including the one who violated the rules. With a red card, a repeat election must be held without the sacked candidate, who will be banned from politics for several years. 

The commission is given more power for this election compared to previous ones, where it now has the authority to dissolve a party if it finds evidences of wrongdoings.

It will be extremely difficult to call which side will form the next government right after the election, because the penalty cards could result in a significant alteration of the political landscape," said Siripan. 

Politicians, especially the anti-junta ones, have started voicing concerns that the current government may use the penalty cards to favor the pro-junta forces to take power. Although the Election Commission, the issuer of the penalty cards, is an independent authority, it has followed the junta's requests to redraw constituency boundaries and to postpone the election. 

Such manipulation could spark criticism not only within Thailand but also in the international community. For Thailand, it could also be a serious undermining of law and order, which was restored by the junta itself. 

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