CIVICUS speaks about the 14 May election in Thailand with Yingcheep Atchanont, executive director of Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw).
Founded in 2009, iLaw is a civil society organisation (CSO) that campaigns for democracy, freedom of expression and a fair and accountable justice system in Thailand. Alongside Amnesty International Thailand, in 2020 iLaw developed the website Mob Data Thailand that compiles protest data and jointly with other groups it exposed the use of Pegasus spyware against prominent leaders of Thailand’s pro-democracy protests.
What was the situation ahead of the election and how did civil society engage with the process?
We came into this election with the 2019 precedent in mind, when unexplained delays and inconsistencies in the reporting of results led to four continuing years of a military regime. No one trusted the results of the 2019 election, which were announced by election commissioners selected by the junta.
Again in 2023, we saw no attempt by the Election Commission to organise a reliable process. This gave us no choice but to protect our votes by creating channels for people to observe the counting process and do our own reporting, parallel to the official process conducted by the Election Commission.
So along with Rocket Media Lab and Opendream, we created Vote62.com, a platform for people to observe the election and for us to do our own reporting on results. We provided training, information and toolkits for volunteers willing to observe the election. There were more than 95,000 polling stations all over the country, so we needed at least 100,000 volunteers. We asked people to go to polling stations after the polls closed at 5pm. We asked people to watch what happened and ask, object and report if they saw any mistakes or irregularities. Once they made sure the results of the counts were correct, they had to take photos of the counting sheets and send them to vote62.com so we could add them up and calculate the result.
What happened when the polls closed?
On election night, big crowds gathered in front of polling stations, especially in cities. We received photos of the live results from more than 30,000 voting sites. We estimate that more than 100,000 people were present at the counting process. By 5.40pm we were able to start reporting results from all districts, which was faster than the system of the Election Commission. With the support of thousands of volunteers who digitised the photos at home, until 9pm we reported the results faster than the official system. The media relied on our results.
We also received reports of mistakes made by officials, but volunteers did not miss any opportunity to set them straight. In many places, people supported officials by helping them calculate the numbers and by offering the supplies needed to keep the process going, including flashlights, spotlights, food, drinks, umbrellas and mobile fans. Many people stood in front of polling stations for four or five hours to be the eyes of those who couldn’t be there.
Democratic culture has evolved. People not only cast their votes but also participated in the observation process. People understood their participation was important and did not let public officials report the results all by themselves, without any checks and balances. A new political culture has emerged and there is no way back – it will remain regardless of who won.
What was the outcome of the election?
The election results were incredible. The progressive, youth-led Move Forward Party, which we call the ‘Oranges’, won the most seats, and its fellow opposition Pheu Thai Party, also known as the ‘Reds’, came second even though everyone expected them to win with a landslide.
Voters roundly rejected military-backed parties. The ‘old regime’ party led by the leader of the 2014 military coup got approximately 15 per cent of the vote and less than 10 per cent of the seats.
These results show that Thai people want change. However, according to our military-drafted constitution, 250 appointed senators can participate in the vote to appoint a prime minister, and many have already vowed not to vote for the ‘Oranges’.
Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat announced an agreement between eight parties to form a coalition government, but he needs 376 votes to become prime minister and currently has 151 from his own party plus 159 from allied parties. The country now needs 66 conscientious senators to step in and vote for the winning party, taking the country back to the path of democracy.
The situation is uncertain. Two weeks on from the election, it’s not sure whether Pita will be the next prime minister. Rumours abound that Pheu Thai will cooperate with military-backed parties to convince senators to vote for a ‘Red’ prime minister. Pita has also been challenged on his qualifications for holding some shares in a media company, which he claims is his family’s property. The process to appoint a new leader should end by late June, and anything can happen, although in terms of the election results, it should be game over for the junta regime.
What are some of the issues for civil society moving forward?
One of the most sensitive issues right now is the lèse-majesté (royal defamation) law, a security offence included in the Criminal Code that allows defamation, insult and threats to the king or others in the royal family to be punished with between three and 15 years in prison. The ‘Oranges’ are one of two parties that have proposed amending it, while the ‘Reds’ appear to not want to touch on the issue.
This issue was very much present in pre-election debates, which were the best opportunity we ever had to discuss this, because they were covered by all media. Although it came first, Move Forward does not have a majority in the House of Representatives, so it will be very difficult to have the law changed through parliament and provide amnesty for the 230-plus people prosecuted under this law.
The proposal to draft a new constitution through a legitimate process is another challenging topic, with most parties unwilling to rewrite the section pertaining the monarchy. These two topics will become more and more controversial if the ‘Oranges’ manage to form a government. But we are still on the edge of the cliff while trying to push for change.
Civic space in Thailand is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.