As presented in a recent commentary, the Thai people went back to polls last Sunday, 24 March 2019. For about seven million of young Thais, it was their first election ever. For many still, it was the first time since the last legitimate elections in 2011. The late announcement of the elections by the government, coupled with the members of the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT), being fairly new in their jobs and limited in experience, meant that conducting the elections was no easy task.
Such challenges may put into question people’s trust towards the ECT. Will they conduct the elections freely? Will they be able to deliver the election results with credibility? Can they be trusted? While these questions were undoubtedly lingering in people’s and electoral contestants’ minds, they fell into line and participated in the electoral process; well, that is around 75 per cent of voters (note that Thailand has compulsory voting) and thousands of candidates from more than 80 political parties.
Trust is an important building block of elections with integrity. In its 2012 Report, the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security led by the late Kofi Annan contended, “Where elections lack integrity, […] public confidence in elections will be weak, and governments will lack legitimacy. In these cases, democratic institutions are empty shells, deprived of the ethos and spirit of democracy.” The integrity of the 24 March 2019 General Elections is therefore crucial to ECT’s credibility. In the hours following the closing of polling stations, trust and therefore, integrity of the elections proved to be ECT’s biggest challenge yet.
In the immediate days after Election Day, political parties seem to trust the unofficial results announced by the ECT. Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of Democrat Party, the oldest and a dominant party since early 1990s, promptly resigned on election night citing poor results. The following day, despite questions lingering as to why the unofficial vote count was stopped at 93 per cent, the two political parties that came out on top have started claiming the right to form government. Meanwhile, a petition for the ECT to be impeached has gained support from 660,000 persons within two days. For some, trust has apparently been broken.
Antonio Spinelli and Adhy Aman, alongside election commissioners and representatives of electoral management bodies (EMBs) from around Asia, were guests of the ECT in their 3-day election visit programme. We were briefed generally on the electoral process on the first day and on election day, were taken to three polling venues where 4-6 polling stations were co-located. Later in the day, we were shown their call centre and results centre. On the third day, we were asked to provide our reflections. This programme, though limited in scope, gave us some understanding of how election day operations took place.
The programme also allowed us to witness in first hand the degree of transparency that existed throughout polling and counting. This observation was later confirmed by the Asian Network for Free Elections’ (ANFREL) Interim Report on 26 March 2019. The polling stations were clearly visible to the public eye. Anyone, including international visitors like us, were able to mingle among voters and passers-by due to the proximity of some of the polling stations to people’s thorough fare. Many of the polling stations were outdoors and people’s access into premises containing polling stations were not limited to registered voters only. Even if the polling stations were located indoors, anyone can free go in and out. Despite of this, people seemed to know that they shouldn’t be entering the polling stations if they were not voting.
Image credit: Adhy Aman/International IDEA.
Upon closure of the polling stations at 17:00 local time, a police line was erected around each polling station. Presumably, anyone crossing the police line would be processed as per the criminal law. Therefore, while inside of the polling stations were still visible to onlookers, the police line created a safety zone in which polling station officials were able to get on with their work uninterrupted. This promoted both transparency and security. The counting process at the polling stations we saw was in fact so transparent that we could clearly see the mark on each ballot counted. This certainly contributes to trustworthiness of the electoral process and the EMB too. Of course, this also meant that shortcomings could also be more easily detected, as ANFREL noted in their report. Nevertheless, transparency promotes trust as it gives the assurance that the EMB has nothing to hide.
The outcome of elections is full of numbers. The number of seats won is based on the number of valid votes gained. The winning candidates are also based on the number of votes gained. Moreover, the number of voters who voted and the number of invalid votes are often used as benchmark for credibility of the elections. Depending on the country’s prevailing laws, the number of seats gained by a party or coalition of parties ultimately determine who may form government and are also determinants for election of the leadership of the parliament. Numbers, numbers and more numbers.
As such, the accuracy of vote tallies and of other relevant calculations is crucial. Such accuracy maintains confidence and therefore, builds trust. Unfortunately, numbers that came out of the Thai elections have been rather confusing for many people, primarily due to insufficient detail and discrepancies. The Nation newspaper reported on these serious errors after the ECT announced new numbers on Thursday, 28 March 2019, four days after the elections and three days after it first promised to announce results. While these were unofficial results, interestingly the media, the political parties and the general public were already treating them as closely resembling the official final results. This is possibly due to past practice of Thai election results being pretty much known on the night of elections.
The Dilemma: From Accuracy to Transparency and on to Trust
Back to the issue of counting errors, the Bangkok Post reported ECT’s response to questions of accuracy. “On discrepancies between the number of [valid votes] and [the] total votes of all parties at some polling stations, [ECT] said they could be some mistakes in the counting but they should not affect total votes each party got.” These are mistakes that are usually not taken lightly as it shows inaccuracy. If they are not properly investigated and rectified, it could affect transparency, which in turn affects trust to the results.
On the one hand, investigation will lead to clarity and satisfaction. However, it may also unearth any shortcomings on the part of the ECT and/or their staff. This is the dilemma likely faced by the ECT.