Saturday, January 05, 2008

Fear of being carded

Fear of being carded

The next two weeks should tell how much of an impact the Election Commission's judgements on alleged campaign improprieties will have on the setup of the new government, writes TUNYA SUKPANICH

In the week since the general election, the nation has witnessed only the outward signs of the intense struggle being waged by the two major political parties - People Power Party (PPP) and the Democrat Party - to form the next government.

Despite the fact that the PPP has won more seats and seems likely to succeed in joining hands with at least three small parties - Ruam Jai Thai Chat Pattana, Matchimatipataya and Pracharaj - its fate hangs under a cloud of uncertainty. There is a strong possibility of numerous yellow or even red cards which can bar candidates being handed down by the Election Commission (EC), and some critics even say that the EC decisions will have a deciding effect on the setup of the new government.

Yellow cards are issued for less serious violations of the Election Law, and candidates who have been issued yellow cards can stand again in the by-election, now scheduled for January 13. Red cards are issued for the most serious violations, and neither candidates or their parties can stand in the by-election.

As it stands now, it appears that the PPP has far more serious complaints lodged against it than other parties.

All minor parties - potential coalition partners - recognise this fact and are adopting a wait-and-see policy before making a final decision on whether to join with the PPP.

Chartthai Party leader Banharn Silpa-archa has said publicly several times that he would wait for the EC to take action on alleged election irregularities before making any political moves. He strongly believes that 10 or more red cards will be issued to disqualify winning candidates, and most of these will be from the PPP.

As it stands now, the PPP has 233 seats in Parliament and the Democrats have 165. It will take 241 for a simple majority, although of course any government will want to have substantially more members in its coalition for security.

Tight Time Frame

Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva and his team tour the city thanking Bangkokians for their support.
Muslim villagers at a polling booth prior to casting their votes in Yala.
Soldiers queue up to vote at polling station 69 on Amnuaykarn Songkhram road opposite the 11th Army Circle in Dusit district.

According to the EC, from November 20 to the December 23 election day, its offices nationwide received a total of 1,030 complaints. However, 678 of these cases were dropped for lack of substantial evidence. Most of the allegations are in the North and Northeast, the strongholds of the PPP.

Of the remaining 352 cases, 139 have been sent to the central EC office to handle. The most serious of these are 38 vote buying allegations. Since the election, more complaints have been filed with the EC.

However, the EC is facing major restrictions on the number of cases it will be able to properly investigate, as it must approve winning candidates within 30 days of the polling.

Earlier the EC announced that the first group of candidates, those free of complaints against them, would be approved within seven days after election day, which is today. However, so far none of the winning candidates have been approved by the EC. It is expected that approval for the first group will come on Jan 4.

The second group are all of those facing complaints - major or minor. As noted, the EC must decide the fate of these candidates within 30 days.

It is thought that the EC will try to have a total of at least 456 candidates approved by Jan 22, as the new Constitution stipulates that at least 95% of the 480 MP seats must be filled before the House of Representatives can be convened.

The EC gives consideration to the by-election date of Jan 13 when prioritising the complaints, so that both constituencies and candidates can be prepared when yellow cards have been issued to winning candidates.

The EC has already yellow-carded three PPP candidates, Prasert Chantraruangthong, Linda Cherdchai and Boonlert Krutkhuntod, all winners in constituency 3 in Nakhon Ratchasima province. Supporters of these candidates were caught with cash and a list of eligible voters. However, the candidates and PPP executives are not especially worried, as they are confident they will be able to regain their seats in the by-election.

More PPP election winners in Lampang and Buri Ram and Si Sa Ket, Leoi and Udon Thani are said to be targeted for either yellow or red cards soon.

Possible Dissolution? According to Article 103 (2) of the Election Law, if there is evidence that political party executives support or are aware of any wrongdoing by candidates but fail to take action to stop it, the EC may propose that the Constitutional Court dissolve the party. In such a case, the party executives will be barred from holding any political posts or participating in any political activities for a period of five years.

Among several complaints sent to the EC that could bring about party dissolution, the most serious one is the allegation made by Veera Somkwamkid, secretary-general of the People's Network Against Corruption, that many VCDs which featured former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra urging people to vote for the PPP had been widely distributed in many provinces in the North and Northeast during election campaigns. As Mr Thaksin was the leader of the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai party, and has been charged with several crimes, and party executives presumably would have had to know about distribution of the VCDs, this could lead to dissolution of the PPP.

Pramaun Rujanaseri, leader of the Prachamati party, which gained no seats in the election, discounted the possibility, saying it would be a difficult and time consuming process to prove wrongdoing by party executives.

"The VCD is not so significant. Actually, it is well known that the PPP is under the influence of former prime minister Thaksin, but this is hard to prove," he said.

However, the political foe of Mr Thaksin speculated that the Chartthai and Puea Pandin parties feel reluctant to join in a coalition government with the PPP because they feel apprehensive about the connection to Mr Thaksin and the 110 other banned former TRT executives.

"The problem of the yellow and red cards is just their excuse. It is not that important. They are more concerned with negotiating for cabinet posts," said Mr Pramual.

He added that Mr Thaksin's supporters should not try to overturn the existing legal process investigating Mr Thaksin's alleged involvement in various corruption schemes by abolishing the Assets Scrutiny Committee.

Mr Pramaul said the PPP would have to bear the responsibility if they continue with their policy to whitewash Mr Thaksin's actions. This also applies to the Chartthai and Puea Pandin parties, since they issued memorandums saying they are willing to join with the PPP if Mr Thaksin does not enter or interfere in politics himself.

Dr Preecha Suwannathat, a lecturer on legal issues at Thammasat University, agreed that it would be difficult to find evidence to support the dissolution of the PPP.

"The situation is different from when Thai Rak Thai was dissolved," he said, noting that there was more evidence against TRT, but "that still took time."

Dr Chantana Suthijaree, of the Faculty of Political Science at Chiangmai University, said that before any complaint of election irregularities or election fraud can lead to red cards and party dissolution, the concerned authorities have to be able to explain their reasoning to the public. She agreed that the PPP is a proxy of Mr Thaksin's, but said this still must be proven. She accepted that the September 19 coup last year and the various legal processes undertaken by the interim government could not delete the ousted prime minister from Thai society.

"Thaksin has struggled and put up a big fight to remain in the hearts of the Thai people. He never disappears from the media. Along with his populist policies, he will be a part of this society," she said.

She added that as long as the PPP needed financial support, as well as policies which attract voters, the ex-prime minister would be able to fit himself into the political equation.

"In Thai political culture, the political leader or hero really exists. The people need a person who can offer them something new. At the same time, that person can prove himself or herself to have high potential if they do enough things differently," said Dr Chantana.

She noted that substantial tensions remain in Thai politics, and that leads to worry among many segments of society.

"We still have two camps - the old and the new powers. Reconciliation is far from becoming a reality."

She also suggest that if the PPP can successfully set up the next government, certain issues which will invariably lead to conflicts and confrontation should be left alone.

"It is not wise to stir up conflicts once again. Economic problems should be tackled first," said the professor.

She saw some reason for optimism in the political and democratic development of Thai society."

"Besides the direct democratic representation through the elections, we also have people's movements which can check and balance both the government and the Parliament.

But Mr Pramual remained skeptical about political developments after last Sunday's election, saying that Mr Thaksin and his supporters don't want to be under any system of justice.

"We had an election and we will have a government soon. But I do not feel relieved at all. What I can do now is to prepare for the next election. It might come sooner than we think," he concluded.

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