“Thailand’s Elections: Intensifying Struggle on the Legal Front” by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

2019/23, 28 February 2019

In the run-up to the 24 March 2019 Thai general elections, an intensifying struggle is being waged off the campaign trail.  This takes the form of the fight for party survival taking place before the Election Commission (EC) and the Constitutional Court.

The most prominent case now before the Constitutional Court concerns the Thai Raksa Chat Party, which on 8 February nominated Princess Ubolratana as its candidate for the Thai premiership. A royal announcement from King Vajiralongkorn on national television the same evening made clear the king’s objection to the involvement of his elder sister in electoral politics.

The EC quickly filed a case in the Constitutional Court accusing the party of undertaking an action deemed “hostile” to the country’s democratic system of government. Thai Raksa Chat has submitted its defence, denying any malicious intentions.  At the first hearing in this case on 27 February, the Constitutional Court stated that it would announcement its verdict on 7 March. There will be no testimony or cross-examination of witnesses. If the party is found guilty, all of its  candidates — numbering 175  running in constituencies and 108, including several prominent Red Shirt leaders, running on the  party list — will be out of the race; the party can also be dissolved, and its executive committee members banned from politics.

In retaliation, Thai Raksa Chat has asked the EC to investigate the Phalang Pracharat Party, which has nominated Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha to retain the premiership.   Such a nomination, according to Thai Raksa Chat, violates the political party law, which prohibits a party’s acquiescence to control by outsiders who are not members of the party.   The prime movers behind the pro-Prayuth party are four men who held economic portfolios in General Prayuth’s cabinet until their resignation from the military government on 30 January.
Phalang Pracharat also came under attack from the Thai Liberal Party, led by retired national police chief Sereepisuth Temeeyaves.   He has asked the EC to seek the dissolution of the pro-Prayuth party, because its nominee for the premiership seized government power in the May 2014 coup. General Prayuth, the coup and junta leader, was the Army chief at that time. And Sereepisuth alleges that this seizure of power was clearly a violation of the constitution.   Moreover, General Prayuth is, as the incumbent prime minister, still drawing a government salary; this makes him a government official who must not favour any party in the election.

Another party facing legal trouble is the Future Forward Party.   For nearly six months after the party’s establishment last March, its website incorrectly stated that party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit had served two terms as president of the Federation of Thai Industries. In fact, he had merely been the president of a provincial industrial association operating under the Federation’s auspices.  The party was accused of deception in a case filed with the EC.   It has now made the necessary clarification on its site that it had made a clerical mistake.

Thanathorn, a 40-year-old billionaire whose party is attracting the support of young urban voters, is also facing more serious criminal charge.  They result from his conducting a live Facebook podcast on 26 June 2018 in which he criticized the junta for pulling strings to drive several veteran politicians to join the Phalang Pracharat Party.

Bhumjai Thai, which came third after the Phuea Thai and Democrat Parties in the 2011 general elections, is yet another party facing legal trouble.  It has been accused of unlawfully collecting identification cards from voters in Nakhon Ratchasima — the largest Northeastern province, where fourteen constituency seats in the House of Representatives are at stake.     Buying identification cards for use by “ghost voters” has long been a means of cheating during elections in some rural areas where poll officials could be bribed to turn a blind eye and not carefully to check the identification cards shown by voters.

The most mind-boggling legal case of all was that filed by the Ruam Jai Thai Party, whose leader accused twelve other small parties of failure to comply with all the provisions in the political party law.
This general election will set a number of records in Thai parliamentary history: 11,181 candidates from 81 parties will be vying for 350 seats in the House of Representatives, compared with 2,422 candidates from 40 parties vying for 375 seats in the general elections of 2011;   2,810 candidates from 77 parties will compete for 150 party-list seats in the House, compared with 1,410 candidates from 40 parties competing for 125 party-list seats in 2011.

The EC has disqualified 389 candidates in the election contest, and 107 in the party-list race, mostly for their failure to join a party at least 90 days before election registration started.

Party dissolution has long been a looming threat to Phuea Thai, the victorious party in 2011 and one with intimate links to the two fugitive former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his youngest sister Yingluck.   Therefore, several senior former members of Phuea Thai  have fanned out to form new “offspring” parties, such as Thai Raksa Chat, Phuea Chat and Phuea Tham. Should Phuea Thai be dissolved, a few of these other “offspring” parties will still be left in the race.  Phuea Thai’s two predecessor parties, Thai Rak Thai and Phalang Prachachon, were dissolved in May 2007 and December 2008, respectively.

Last June General Prayuth’s junta accused Phuea Thai of breaking its orders not to engage in political activities or to organize political assemblies of five or more people until the pending election law had come into force.   Now it is only a matter of time before the police and the public prosecutor submit this case to the EC for further legal action.

How the EC handles each case is always a subject of controversy.  It is an autonomous entity under the constitution.  But many have accused its seven members of political bias in favour of the Phalang Pracharat Party.  A case in point is the speedy processing of the accusation against Thai Raksa Chat, in contrast to the EC’s “no evidence just yet” stance in its initial finding in the case against Phalang Pracharat.

Accusing the EC of lacking impartiality is not new.  In 2006, the Democrat Party accused the EC of foot-dragging in a case in which Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was accused of hiring politicians to form ad hoc parties to contest in the general election of April 2006 and thereby to legitimize those controversial  polls.  The Democrats and several other parties boycotted the election, and the retired police general who headed the EC was eventually found guilty and jailed for two years.

Sooner or later, a number of parties may be found guilty and dissolved.  Unfortunately, in this intensifying life-and-death struggle, the EC and its members could also be hit and turned into “collateral damage”.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Lead Researcher for Political and Security Affairs in the ASEAN Studies Centre and a member of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.