Senate candidates campaign without politics

senate rally

Crowds gather at Khon Kaen’s provincial hall to hear senatorial candidates speak.

KHON KAEN—When Komet Teekhathananon took to the stage outside the provincial hall on Thursday, he described his experience as a business owner and a local politician. Mr. Komet is running for senator, and this was his sole chance to speak to voters before Sunday’s senatorial election. But there was one catch: he was not allowed to talk about politics.

“As a senatorial candidate, there are many laws that control what I can say,” said 57-year-old Mr. Komet, whose family owns a marketplace in Khon Kaen. “So it’s hard to explain what I really want you to understand.”

Mr. Komet is one of seven candidates running for senator in Khon Kaen Province. Strict rules aimed at maintaining a non-partisan Senate in Thailand bar candidates from carrying out many common campaign practices, including discussing current political issues.

The few permissible activities include posting billboards with their names and slogans on government offices, and submitting photos and short biographies to be circulated by mail and broadcasted over government radio.

On Thursday, each candidate in Khon Kaen was also given 15 minutes to speak on stage before a crowd of approximately 2,000 people in front of the provincial hall.

Because senatorial candidates are prohibited from discussing political issues, most of their speeches focused on personal qualifications.

Like Mr. Komet, prominent radio D.J. Wan Suwanphong, 75, also addressed the limitations placed on his campaign speech.

“I believe that we still need to amend the constitution, but I am not permitted to speak much on what I want to see change,” said Mr. Wan.

Instead, Mr. Wan discussed his background as a lawyer.  Yet he did finish with a comment that made clear his view of the Constitutional Court’s recent ruling to void the February 2 election of MPs.

“I am afraid that the March 30 election could end up the same as the MP election on February 2,” Mr. Wan said. “If it becomes invalid again, I will be the lawyer that sues whomever invalidates it.”

Mr. Thitinan Saengnak, 53, also gestured towards his political position without being explicit.

“We have to work with people from the bureaucratic system, like the Office of Ombudsman. We have to work with these people. You know who they are and what they believe,” said Mr. Thitinan.

The Office of Ombudsman is one of several government agencies considered to be aligned with the anti-government camp.

“I want to stay with you on your side,” Mr. Thitinan told the Khon Kaen audience. “I believe that we have the same position, the same point of view.”

Other candidates avoided politics and focused on more neutral issues.

Suwit Namboonroeng, age 62, cited a lifelong commitment to democracy and stressed the importance of education.

Forty-seven-year-old Suthon Sornkhamkaew, who has a background in accounting, stressed his personal impartiality.

“I’m totally independent, I am not interested in backing up any color in particular, “ said Mr. Suthon. “I think the most important thing for the senator is to be honest and have integrity.”

Senatorial candidates cannot be affiliated with a political party, so it is especially valuable to have high name-recognition.

“You cannot be just anybody and run for senator,” said Khon Kaen Election Commissioner Thitipol Thosarod. “There are always some unknown candidates who use this situation to introduce themselves to the public, but usually the people who run for Senate are already very well-known in the province.”

Although anti-government protesters have vowed to block any MP election that is held before a series of national reforms are implemented, they say they will not interfere with Sunday’s Senate election. This is likely because the Senate, which holds the power to impeach the Prime Minister with a three-to-five vote, is essential to any effort to oust Prime Minister Yingluck.

As a result of the 2007 constitution, Thailand’s Senate is only half-elected; the other half is appointed by judges and government officials who are widely considered to be members of the anti-Shinawatra establishment.

The committee that appoints senators includes senior leaders from the Constitutional Court, National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), Election Commission, State Audit Commission and a representative of the Supreme Court.

With a strong influence from these agencies, the Senate is expected to back a decision to impeach Prime Minister Yingluck if the NACC recommends it.

The NACC has charged Ms. Yingluck with negligence of duty in overseeing the government’s controversial rice-pledging scheme. The Prime Minister is scheduled to appear before the NACC on March 31, and the corruption commission is expected to announce its verdict early next month.

With the current government hanging in the balance, the Senate candidates elected on Sunday are set to play a pivotal role in determining the course of Thailand’s political crisis.

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