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A Week in Review: July 16-22, 2011

The Election Commission at work yesterday

Why would anyone not only want but actually fight so bitterly to get such a thankless job as Prime Minister of Thailand? 71.3% of Thais seem to know why. Do you?

Three weeks on and Thailand’s Election Commission is struggling to meet the constitutional requirement of endorsing 95% of parliamentary members within 30 calendar days of a general election.

Needing to approve at least 475 from the total of 500 MPs by August 2, the EC had still only endorsed 402 MPs by the end of last week.

With almost 400 complaints to investigate and time running out, the EC has vowed to take legal action against anybody who lodges a false complaint regarding electoral fraud.

Commissioner Sodsri Satayathum said an old tactic by opponents of victorious candidates is to set up networks which lodge false complaints, either in a bid to set up the disqualification of the MPs-elect or to stall for time in the hope that they are not endorsed before the deadline.

One such complaint that has already been rejected is the yellow shirt PAD’s request to have the election results nullified.

The Supreme Court's Criminal Cases Division last week dismissed a petition submitted by yellow shirt leader Maj Gen Chamlong, who was denied the right to vote on July 3 because of a technicality. The court rejected the petition, saying no law empowers a petitioner to demand nullification of the election or a new poll. The EC also ignored his request to suspend endorsement of MPs-elect pending an investigation.

However, the EC has shown its willingness to take decisive action by suspending the poll victory of the Bhum Jai Thai winner in Sukhothai's Constituency 3 and calling a by-election for July 31.

EC secretary-general Sutthipol Taweechaikarn said that Bhum Jai Thai's Chakkawan Chaiwiratkul was suspended for vote buying. The candidate was accused of paying 20 people 200 baht each to attend his election campaign. In his defence, Mr Chakkawan said he hired the people to help with his poll campaigning.

With blatant vote-buying known to have been widespread amongst most of the parties, it will be interesting to see whether this turns out to be an isolated case or not.

One other group of candidates still under investigation by the EC last week was the 12 red shirt leaders elected under the Phuea Thai banner.

According to the EC, the delay in endorsing the red shirt leaders as MPs is due to an inquiry into their qualifications. They face complaints that they do not meet the Phuea Thai party's own membership qualifications after some of them were arrested for alleged involvement in last year's political violence.

With some justification, Natthawut Saikua, a core red shirt member and Pheu Thai list MP-elect, argued that as the EC had allowed all of the red shirt leaders to stand in the election in the first place, it surely indicated that the agency agreed they were qualified to contest the poll.

In a somewhat less forceful argument, Natthawut – himself currently out of prison on bail – also pointed out that only 5 of the 12 red shirt candidates had actually been imprisoned on remand for terrorism charges in relation to their roles in (allegedly) inciting trouble.

And in a case of not knowing to quit when he was ahead, Natthawut went on to say that those who had been detained had later resigned from the party and then re-applied to avoid legal complications after their release on bail.

The Pheua Thai Party's Regulation 10 states that people who have been arrested and imprisoned will be stripped of their membership. However, the regulation was later amended and a clause banning a person being detained from applying for party membership was also deleted.

Phuea Thai is clearly happy to amend its own rules and regulations to accommodate alleged terrorists. One can only wonder what they will do with the constitution once they are in power.

True to form, as the uncertainty over the future of the 12 red shirts remained, they threatened to bring their supporters back onto the streets unless their demands to be endorsed are met. Of course, we are all familiar with the red shirts’ version of democracy by now.

Whether the EC is dragging its feet or just doing its job thoroughly, it is not only the red shirts who are unhappy with the delays. An ABAC poll, conducted by Assumption University, surveyed 2,114 people and found 71.3% of respondents were dissatisfied with the EC's decision to delay its endorsement of MPs.

By pure coincidence, another ABAC poll last week showed that a similar percentage of Thais believe that a corrupt government is acceptable if, in being dishonest, it can also bring prosperity to the people and to the country. The second poll questioned 2,559 people in 17 provinces throughout the country about what they expect from the incoming government.

Judging by the results of the two polls, the old saying that people get the government they deserve may never have been truer than in Thailand.

And by the end of the week we were a little closer to finding out for sure when another batch of MPs were approved by the EC. The 32 included Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra, the outgoing and incoming PMs respectively, as well as 6 never-imprisoned red shirts.

To be fair to her, Yinglusk has handled the delays with decorum and dignity – publically at least. However, it will be once her term of office begins that her mettle is truly tested.

She has already been widely dismissed as nothing more than a loyal and obedient proxy for her older brother, and the matter of his inevitable amnesty will stretch the tolerance of many Thais to the limit.

In the meantime, there are border issues with Cambodia to resolve, and a rising cost of living to rein in.

Then there is the question of how to handle the red shirts now that they have served their purpose. And what about those impossible promises that won so many votes?

For Yingluck Shinawatra, getting into office will have been the easy part.

Paul Snowdon – July 23, 2011

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