Sunday, December 16, 2007

EC's task is to keep it fair

General News - Monday December 17, 2007

Bangkok Post

EC's task is to keep it fair

With a highly charged election fast approaching, one of the country's toughest jobs is to be a member of the Election Commission (EC). Full commissioners and staff, both at the Bangkok headquarters and up-country branches, are directly in the spotlight. The EC and each of its members must not only do the right thing in a combative campaign, they must always be seen to be doing the right thing. This is why the EC's recent decision to clear the Council for National Security (CNS) is controversial at the least, and is troubling to some.

Letting the CNS off a very controversial charge without so much as a mild rebuke opened the EC to charges of excessive leniency in speaking to power. The way the commissioners decided their first serious case of possible poll cheating creates an atmosphere where poll cheats can easily claim the EC is being unfair. The decision in the spectacular case brought by the Palang Prachachon _ People Power _ party sends several messages to the public that impact poorly upon the EC and will undoubtedly be used by future defendants who face the commission.

Recall that the case against the CNS began when PPP leader Samak Sundaravej make public what it purported to be a copy of a secret military order by the junta to suppress the party, in order to prevent it from taking power after the Dec 23 elections.

Military spokesmen and leaders directly lied when they claimed the documents were forged, then blustered that they were stolen, and finally tried to claim they were only a proposal. Their fibs exposed in turn, the generals fell back on a final defence: the authentic orders signed by the top military generals were never actually carried out.

Four of the five main EC commissioners bought this plea. They ruled that no harm had come to the PPP, and thus the CNS was held blameless and dismissed. (The fifth commissioner, Sodsri Sattayatham, felt the charges should have gone to court instead of to the EC.)

This verdict is unfortunate in many ways, but perhaps none so important as this: from now on, every case before the EC must pass this new test of whether an action caused harm.

It will be difficult to prove almost any current case that is likely to come before the commission, including several important charges already pending. For example, consider the case of the Thaksin Shinawatra video CDs. The image of the exiled former premier urging voters to support the PPP is the main exhibit of a real EC case now under consideration. It will be almost impossible for any prosecutor to keep a straight face and argue that such VCDs have caused any harm. And the content of the videos, precisely like the CNS documents, shows only intent and planning; the PPP, since it is not the government, has not carried out one election promise in the video. It cannot, since it is not the government.

Alternatively, the EC could rule that the VCDs have harmed the election. An extreme ruling could order the PPP dissolved. If so, the EC will face strong and credible criticism of bias. Letting the CNS walk without even a wrist slap while punishing or destroying the PPP will not seem fair to many voters. And the EC itself will lose respect for failing to balance its decisions against all defendants.

Failure to speak to power is a crippling charge against any public commission. The EC's heavy responsibility during the rest of this month parallels increasing popular concern about the armed forces.

The refusal by the extremely wealthy ex-army commander Sonthi Boonyaratkalin to vacate three military-owned homes is troubling. So is the idea that one man can actually claim to occupy three houses, all of which are owned by the taxpayers of Thailand.

It should concern all voters that the EC appeared unwilling to confront the military junta. It will concern them more if the EC suddenly turns tiger in other cases.

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