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Critics Don't Expect Thailand's Election To Be Free Or Fair

Mar 20, 2019
Originally published on March 20, 2019 9:05 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On Sunday in Thailand, that country will hold its first general election since the military seized power in a 2014 coup. Few expect the vote to be free or fair. In fact, critics say the election could cement the military's role in politics for decades to come. Michael Sullivan starts his report in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Thai).

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Early Friday evening at a rally for the pro-military Phalang Pracharat Party in the capital where one of the candidates implores the crowd to vote for the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Thai).

SULLIVAN: "That truth," he says, "is coup leader turned prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha," who's the party's candidate to be prime minister after the election, too. And that's just fine with one likely voter here, Bunsong Tengkeaw.

BUNSONG TENGKEAW: (Speaking Thai).

SULLIVAN: "Since the coup," he says, "things have been good. Things have been peaceful, not like before with the demonstrations and the violence." Prayuth has also done well fighting corruption and the drug trade too, he says. Shopkeeper Thananan Nambud goes even further.

THANANAN NAMBUD: (Speaking Thai).

SULLIVAN: "I want him to win this election and the next one and the one after that," she says. But that sentiment isn't shared by many Thais. The party that nominated Prayuth - lagging far behind in the polls. Many still prefer parties associated with deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which have won every democratic election since 2001. But the military has had almost five years to prepare for this election, and they've been busy.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: The rules are designed to produce a certain outcome for the military regime. And that outcome is to keep the one side down, away, weak and to keep the military side, with its parties and allies, strong enough to run the government after the election.

SULLIVAN: Chulalongkorn University’s Thitinan Pongsudhirak says the military-drafted constitution ensures the 250-person Senate will be appointed by the military and a new way of allocating seats in the House that makes it impossible for any single party to win an overwhelming majority - as Thaksin-friendly parties have done repeatedly in the past. The playing field, Thitinan says, is simply uneven.

PONGSUDHIRAK: Apart from the rules that have been kind of crafted for the military, the referees, the agencies to enforce these rules, from the election commission to the constitutional court to the anti-corruption agency, they all seem to have lined up behind the military government.

SULLIVAN: Doesn't Umesh Panday know it.

UMESH PANDAY: There's no way that this election can possibly be free and fair.

SULLIVAN: Panday is the former editor of the Bangkok Post, forced out last year, he says, for being too critical of the military. His party was dissolved by the constitutional court earlier this month after nominating a former princess as its candidate for prime minister. And he's worried another new party, Future Forward, could be next, a party led by a charismatic 40-year-old who is no friend of the military and popular with young voters in particular.

PANDAY: They have already filed cases against him. I hope they don't take it to a point where they shoot him down. But do I fear that? Sure, hell, I do.

SULLIVAN: In the meantime, elements of Panday's dissolved Thai Raksa Chart Party have been busy organizing rallies with a simple message - vote for anyone but the military. Outside the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, Ari Ongpimai doesn't need much convincing.

ARI ONGPIMAI: (Speaking Thai).

SULLIVAN: She's a farmer and says the economy has gotten worse since the military took over. She grows cassava and sugarcane but says prices have fallen so much, she can't earn. It was better before, she says, when former Prime Minister Thaksin's parties were in power. Many others at the rally agreed. Ari is voting for the Thaksin-founded Puea Thai Party. She knows the military has stacked the deck against it but remains defiant. We'll fight for who we want. At least we get to vote, she says. After nearly five years, that's a start. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Nakhon Ratchasima. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.