A hashtag that translates as “The Election Commission has been busted” is trending in Thailand, as initial poll results for Sunday’s election were met with both confusion and skepticism. The distrust of the commission perfectly captures anxieties about the flawed election process, as well as the damaged state of Thai politics more generally.
Many Thais doubted the competence and neutrality of the agency tasked with overseeing the vote, and their distrust is now heightened after the process was marred by irregularities and figures that just didn’t add up. Towards the end of election night, the commission simply gave up, postponing the tallying of the votes until the next morning because it was “complicated” and the officials “didn’t have a calculator.”
Final results won’t be released until May 9 but unofficial figures so far show the Palang Pracharat party leading the popular vote. The party is a vehicle for the ruling junta, who aim to use the poll to stay in power. However, Pheu Thai party — the second party aligned with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to be overthrown by the military — will win the most constituency seats. They say they will try to form a coalition government, a move that would almost certainly be blocked by the army.
It’s not clear yet if the voting irregularities are simply blunders or part of a brazen attempt to rig an election that was already unfairly stacked against the pro-Thaksin party. But what is clear, is that the elections suffer from a legitimacy deficit, Thais have lost faith in their institutions, and the country is badly broken.
It was the issue of elections that caused the breakage in the first place. For decades, two opposing forces have been slowly grinding away at each other in Thailand. On one side, is a society that has modernised rapidly and become increasingly assertive about its right to representation. On the other, a powerful state bureaucracy, with the military as its armed wing, that distrusts elected politicians and prefers a form of limited, ‘guided’ democracy. This tension became too much for the country to bear. Something had to give.
Since the 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra, the military and its allies have been looking for a way to permanently “fix” the problems they think are caused by democracy. They have just done more damage instead. Society has pushed back, leading to conflict and chaos in which none of the country’s institutions have been left unscathed.
For many in Thailand, particularly younger people, the military’s reputation is at its lowest point in decades. By assuming control of the country, the army have blurred the line between themselves and politicians, becoming targets for criticism about everything from the economy to smog. General-turned-premier Prayut Chan-o-cha is seen as an out-of-touch, grumpy old man and his deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan has been marred in corruption scandals.
The monarchy has also been tarnished by a perception it has interfered in political affairs. Despite being officially “above politics," several interventions by the palace have opened it up for an unprecedented level of criticism. Most recently, when King Vajiralongkorn delivered a pre-election statement asking Thais to vote for “good people”, it was interpreted as instructing people to vote for the pro-junta party. In response, indignant young Thai voters started using the hashtag “I’m all grown up now, I can choose for myself."
Thai courts too, have cracked under the pressure of the political crisis. The justice system is seen as unfair and corrupt, with The Constitutional Court in particular facing criticism for its alleged political bias. Last month it dissolved a pro-Thaksin party, leaving it unable to contest the election and giving the junta party an even greater chance of winning.
When the election results are confirmed and parliament convenes, they will be joined by 250 appointed senators: handpicked cronies of the junta. The upper chamber is widely seen as illegitimate and was recently lambasted by political rap group Rap Against Dictatorship, who released a song calling them “bootlickers.”
And the beleaguered Election Commission is just one of Thailand’s so-called “independent agencies” that have come under criticism. Other agencies such as the Anti-Corruption Commission and even the Human Rights Commission have been accused of taking sides in Thailand’s political conflict.
If Thailand’s institutions are dysfunctional, it’s both a cause and effect of the fractures in the broader Thai society. Because, although the election rules unfairly advantaged the pro-junta party, and even if some cheating took place, it’s clear that a significant portion of the population do support military rule.
For some Thais — particularly in Bangkok, where much of the support for the junta can be found — a military strongman is preferable to a politician voted into power by provincial Thais. Class-anxieties, long-held ethnic prejudices and an outdated belief that rural Thais sell their votes contribute to this preference.
This social chasm is something Thailand has to reckon with. Before Thais can learn to have faith in the institutions that are so necessary to a functioning society, they need to start having faith in each other.
James Buchanan is a PhD Candidate researching Thai politics at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong. Follow him on Twitter @JBuchananBKK.