Ahead of the national election on March 24, Apinan Chanoopala, director of the Office of the Election Commission in Khon Kaen Province, talks to The Isaan Record about free and fair elections, democratic culture and decentralization of power in Thailand.
The Isaan Record: What is the role of the provincial election commission office during elections?
Apinan Chanoopala: We fulfill the mandate of the national election commission on the ground in the province. In other words, we ensure that the election happens the way it’s supposed to happen within our jurisdiction.
The overall aim of election laws is to ensure that elections are free and fair, and that no party or parties have an undue advantage over any of the other parties contesting the election, let’s just put it that way.
IR: What measures does the election commission employ to prevent election cheating?
AC: Apart from investigative staff, we try to educate voters on the laws, the dos and don’ts of an election via our website, other forms of media, and also by having printed information at local administration offices, which is pretty standard. For example, prohibiting the taking a photo of your ballot with a smartphone [or making sure] election signs are installed in an orderly fashion and do not cause a nuisance.
IR: What about election observers to make sure everything is being done correctly?
AC: We do have some, but not at every single voting station. It’s also up to the voters themselves to report irregularities or unfair practices to the election commission. If we learn of a case, we will take action according to the regulations enshrined by law.
IR: Who is automatically excluded from voting?
AC: Buddhist monks, but not Imams or Christian priests, and the demonstrably insane.
If [a voter] clearly doesn’t know what’s going on or what they’re doing, the commission staff may use their discretion to stop this person from voting. It’s up to them to decide on the spot. If someone is mentally sound enough to behave at a polling station without any irregularities, then there would be no reason to stop them from voting.
IR: What punishments are there for parties that breach election laws?
AC: The laws state quite clearly what the punishments are for various offences, and it’s impossible to preempt which offences are going to occur. For example vote buying, what does this mean? Promising certain benefits or gifts to individuals, organisations, or communities constitutes vote buying. Throwing a big event such as a concert is also considered improper campaigning, since it could be considered manipulation. No banquets, free meals, or slandering. These are all clearly prohibited by the law.
IR: What’s your opinion on decentralization of power in Thailand?
AC: Well, it’s hard to say. We’ve been doing things this way for so long it’s going to be hard to change it. It’d be up to whoever ends up in government. It might work well in one place, and in another place, it might not be so certain to work well. Whether or not it will happen or even work well would also depend on the educational levels and general awareness of citizens themselves. Economic conditions would also be a factor that determines whether or not this will work.
IR: In the US, for example, citizens even elect their sheriffs, who are law enforcement officers, and local judges by popular vote. Do you think that level of democracy would work in Thailand?
AC: Frankly, probably not yet. In the US you have a culture of rights enshrined in the constitution that were hard won, and hard fought for. In the US you are socialized with constitutional rights as a norm, but that culture just doesn’t exist in Thailand. It’s a different cultural backdrop. The way Buddhism influences people’s attitudes, and perhaps the way that we tend to just let things slide is probably a drawback when it comes to these issues.
IR: Some say that elections at very local levels tend to degenerate into popularity contests that don’t necessarily put the best managers and leaders into office. What do you say about that?
AC: Well there’s a mutual acceptance, a social contract, that if they win the vote you have to let them get on with the job, even if there are problems along the way. If they’re no good, then there’s always the next election. As for Thailand, we’ve probably got a way to go before this becomes ingrained in the culture. This brings us back to the importance of education and respect for rights.
IR: What party or parties do you think will have the strongest showing in Khon Kaen?
AC: If the previous election is anything to go by, then there will be just a few of the larger parties, which I shall not name, that will most likely have the strongest showing in not just Khon Kaen but all of Isaan. Voters will probably choose the parties that are a known quantity to them.
IR: Do you expect a high voters turnout this time?
AC: Last time [in 2011] it was 75%.
IR: Why do you think the election is getting so much interest from younger voters this time around?
AC: I think it’s to do with the internet and social media. It just makes it so much easier for people to learn about issues and to understand that politics is something that directly affects them in their day-to-day lives, and the people who have embraced these technologies the most, who have grown up with these technologies, are the younger generations.