After the election, questions linger for Isaan voters

Two weeks after the March 24 election, the results are still inconclusive. A few Isaan people in Bangkok accepted the vote. But many suspect the military government has cheated and call for the power to be returned to the voters.

By Hathairat Phaholtap, special report for The Isaan Record

BANGKOK – The tok-tok-tok coming from Wilai Saenpon’s papaya salad cart has been a familiar sound in Sukhumvit Soi 13 for many years. The 61-year-old left her home in Roi Et Province almost 30 years ago to make better living in the capital.

“If the economy in my province were doing well, I won’t have come to Bangkok,” she said. “I hope that after the election, the economy will get better.”

Thailand’s economy may be sluggish, but Mrs. Wilai’s food cart is drawing a long line of customers.

Asked if she voted in the March 24 polls and for which party she cast her ballot, Mrs. Wilai first turned to a customer: “Oh, you wanted mango salad–not papaya salad with pickle crabs. I’m sorry, I was busy talking.” Another customer happily takes the wrong order.

For election day, Ms. Wilai took a trip back to her hometown. “I voted for Palang Pracharat Party because they ran a former MP who I know,” she told The Isaan Record. “Actually, I like Pheu Thai Party better because of their rice price policy and their support for the poor.”

Wilai Saenpon, a 61-year-old street vender from Roi Et Province, voted for Palang Pracharat Party because she knew the candidate running for the party.

Mrs. Wilai and her daughter are out on the street selling Isaan food almost every day, making about a daily average of 1,000 baht (about US$ 31). But in the rainy season, they return to Roi Et to plant rice to feed her family. Like many farmers in region, her family is in debt.

“I hope the government can help me solve my debt [problem] and give me some farm land,” she said, adding that the bank took her land as collateral. “If I get that. I wouldn’t need to work in Bangkok.”

Nearby, two tuk-tuk drivers are waiting for passengers in the tourist area around Nana BTS station.

Suthat Sittirak from Surin Province had started working at 4 a.m. today but had only earned 300 baht by the afternoon. Before the military coup, under the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the 66-year-old could make about 3,000 baht per day.

“I voted for Pheu Thai because I wanted them to come back. It was easy to earn money under their government,” he said. “Since the coup, there are no tourists, no visitors, no passengers for my tuk-tuk.”

Suthat Sittirak, a 66-year-old tuk-tuk driver from Surin Province, said he voted for Pheu Thai because he believes they can boost the economy.

Jat Wanna, another tuk-tuk driver from the same village as Mr. Suthat, added that, “In our village, most people voted for Pheu Thai Party because they believe it will improve their lives.”

Mr. Jat’s income in the past four years has not been enough to support his wife and two children. Forced to take out an informal loan, he used his two trucks and land as a collateral.

“The economy is like this because of the military government,” the 56-year-old said. “In the past, I didn’t have these difficulties with a monthly income of 30,000 to 40,000 baht.”

Mr. Jat voted for Pheu Thai Party, hoping that the new government would address his problems. But after the election he grew frustrated about how the vote count was handled.

“If the soldiers return, our country again won’t be democratic, even if they were voted in,” Mr. Jat said. “But they can’t answer whether the vote count was transparent and fair. They made all the rules themselves and it seems like they cheated us, tricked the people into voting but really just wanting to bring themselves back into power.”

Jat Wanna, a 56-year-old tuk-tuk driver from Surin Province, questions whether the election was transparent and fair.

In the 2011 election, 126 seats in parliament were decided in the Northeast. But in November last year, the Election Commission (ECT) redrew the constituency boundaries, cutting the number of northeastern MPs down to 116. But even with the reduced number, the Northeast still has more MPs than any other region in the country.

According to the unofficial results of the election on March 24, Pheu Thai Party received 84 seats in the region, followed by the military government’s proxy party, the Palang Pracharat Party with 16 and Bhumjaithai Party with 11 seats. The official result will not be announced until May 9.

The ECT has come under heavy criticism over its alleged mismanagement of the election process and for releasing delayed and inconsistent results.

Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, believes the election result raises questions that the ECT must address.

“This election can’t be explained in general terms because the results may or may not been influenced by the state,” she said. “But I think the government’s welfare card played a role in getting Palang Pracharat Party votes. It is something that must be explained.”

The welfare card scheme, initiated in 2017 by the military government, provided for some 11.7 million of the country’s rural poor with 200 to 300 baht per month to purchase household essentials at a reduced price.

Ms. Siripan argues that the ECT needs to clarify the vote count, otherwise people might not accept the election results.

On Thursday, the ECT ordered a recount for two polling stations and new elections at six polling stations as the number of voters did not match the number of ballots in the March 24 vote.

Pheu Thai’s strong showing in the Northeast can be explained by the party’s successes of the past in contrast to the military government’s weak economic performance, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University.

“Palang Pracharat isn’t popular among people in Isaan because voters question that after four to five years this government hasn’t been successful, yet they want to continue,” Mr. Titipol said. “But it is more a question of policy efficiency rather than supporting or rejecting the military government.”

One thing that both political scientists agree on is that the ECT should reveal the results in an honest and transparent way. Only then, they say, can the election be accepted and accurately describes the behavior of voters.