- Poll Watching:International Observer
Soon after the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) received accreditation from the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT), this author was invited to join the network's election observation mission (EOM) as an official international observer. Coming from Nepal, a country which has experienced significant political upheavals over the past 13 years—including the end of a decades-long insurgency, a popular people's revolution that abolished the monarchy and the promulgation of a new Constitution—it was exciting to observe Thai citizens exercising their democratic rights.
I flew to Ubon Ratchathani province to observe the elections a few days before the polls. While ANFREL was among a number of international organizations that had expressed an interest in observing the elections, the ECT delayed accrediting international observers. As a contingency plan, on 11 March, ANFREL had asked me to contribute to its "Asian Electoral Research Center" as a "researcher" instead of using the term "election observer" to avoid any legal problems. Only on 14 March was ANFREL officially accredited.2 Initially, I considered the delay natural: official observers would be a low priority for the ECT, given the other preparations for the elections which the Commission had to undertake. When I finally received my official observer's identification card the day before the elections, however, I began to sense that the delay, and the general lack of preparedness, were deliberate. [End Page 216]
The role of an international observer was relatively simple: to observe the campaign environment, assess the security situation and understand the views of the voters. In addition, observers are also tasked to monitor the voter registration process and voter lists, the election administration, voter education, the behaviour of government officials (including the military and police), the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) and other domestic election observers, as well as the media. As the only official international observer stationed in Ubon Ratchathani, the author established a three-way communication channel with the provincial coordinators of two prominent domestic election observation groups—We Watch and the Open Forum for Democracy Foundation (P-NET)—within hours of landing in the field.
Over the course of five days during the election week, the author travelled approximately 1,300 kilometres to five out of Ubon Ratchathani's ten constituencies to interview candidates, voters, electoral officers, and representatives from the media and civil society organizations. The observations in this article are drawn from the author's 57 interviews, experience in the field and reports that were shared by other election observers.
Overall, political parties relied on traditional methods of campaigning such as door-to-door canvassing, posters and public rallies. Social media was also extensively used during the campaign. It was interesting to witness political parties such as Pheu Thai and Future Forward framing the constitutional provision of 250 appointed senators as a barrier to democracy and themselves as the guardians of Thai democracy, even at the village level.
The electoral campaign was mostly peaceful and instances of violence were rare. Informants credited the largely peaceful environment to the stringent electoral regulations imposed by the ECT, and to efforts undertaken by political parties and candidates to avoid severe penalties from the authorities. However, while the campaign environment was generally peaceful, the anti-junta parties were subject to intimidation by the security forces. For instance, a Pheu Thai candidate from Ubon Ratchathani's Constituency 7 shared that he had been visited by military officers two days before the polls and continuously followed by plain-clothes military officers. Similar stories were told to other election observers in other parts of the country, with some of these incidents reported in the mainstream media.3 [End Page 217]
In interviews, academics, members of CSOs and voters expressed their concerns about the electoral environment. They often cited the government's sweeping powers during the election period. This included legal provisions which could be used against critics of the junta, such as Section 44 of the 2014 Interim Constitution, the Computer Crime Act and the extension of electoral regulations on social media campaigning. Interviewees often questioned the impartiality of the ECT—especially over the dissolution of the Thai Raksa...