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Some encouraging tweets from the Thai election just concluded

UPDATE I should probably have had a zippier headline, something like "The worldwide significance of Thailand's elections," and I wouldn't have been lying; it's not every day that you get to see a nation in the process of deciding whether to roll back democracy or not. --lambert]

My perspective, for what it's worth -- Thai politics is dark and complicated, and events that seem similar to US events may not be similar -- is that the key issue in the election was whether "one person, one vote"-style electoral democracy is a legitimate form of constitutional government for Thailand, or not.

Leaving discussion of the (dubious, self-serving, and corrupt*) merits of the contending forces, Pheu Thai (PT), the government side -- there are many sides, but (in the election) two main ones -- answered "yes", and the Democrat Party/PRDC, anti-government side answered "no." The Democrats (and the PRDC**) attempted to delegitimate the election, the government, and electoral democracy as such in at least four ways: (1) The Democrats boycotted the election entirely; (2) the PRDC blocked the distribution of ballots in some districts it controlled (mostly in the South), (3) and blocked voter access to polling places (again in the South, but also in Bangkok), and (4) by creating an atmosphere heavy with the tension of anticipated violence. (To be fair, both, indeed all sides have "hard men," militant, armed wings, and both sides also have hotheads that can be said to be legitimately out of control). Finally, (5) the PRDC put forward the slogan "election before reform," meaning that an unelected council of "good people" would somehow put the country right, and after a year (or so) elections would be said. Needless to say, nobody in their right mind would believe this promise was made in good faith.***

General Prayuth, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, votes. Since the Army is a political player, this does nothing other than legitimate electoral democracy. It's also a signal that the Army is unlikely to stage a coup, which is an interesting result.

The Army votes. This is a second signal that the Army won't stage a coup; leadership would be unable to do so without splitting the ranks.

World Champion badminton player Ratchanok Intanon votes. (BlueSky is the Democrat/PRDC TV station. It's like FOX would be if FOX were completely hermetically sealed.)

The women in Din Daeng district are pissed. Great photo, which alas didn't go viral.

And they're right to be pissed. ("Guard" means "paramilitary.")

Finally, here's a story from Ratchathewi district. The headline is horribly deceptive, as you will see:

Bangkok aunties rage against election sabotage

... But the uprising [sic] had met its match in a 50-year-old, bespectacled civil servant named Kinsakan Fongphokai. Distraught that polling stations were disrupted, she and dozens of other would-be voters marched over to a nearby police station to file grievances. Some scribbled away at forms angrily. Others simply moped about the station.

But Kinsakan was defiant. On her orders, middle-aged ladies emerged with folding tables and a stack of paper dug from a recycling bin. She dispatched another man to go fetch a makeshift ballot box.

He returned with a sad, crumpled cardboard receptacle with “ELECTION BOX” scribbled on the side in black marker. The crowd mistook the box for a goofy prop and burst into laughter.

But Kinsakan wasn’t joking.

With election officials cowed by vigilantes, she had taken it upon herself to restore the democratic process — even if that meant collecting votes in a cruddy box in a parking lot.

“This is just a box we found. But now it’s a ballot box,” Kinsakan said. “These papers aren’t for recycling anymore. They’re our votes.”

Within minutes, the crowd was chanting “lueak dtang” (elections) and filing into orderly queues to register and cast their ballots. The aunties had instantly assumed the gravitas of election officials.

“I realize this is abnormal,” Kinsakan said. “But we have our rights. At this rate, with people losing their rights, we’ll achieve nothing. If we don’t vote, this country is finished.”

in Kinsakan’s Bangkok district of Ratchathewi, where upper and lower classes live side by side, the election sabotage was for many a step too far.

By the time polls were closed, Kinsakan and her squad of aunties had collected 1,445 votes — most handwritten on the backs of hospital patient evaluation forms they’d managed to rummage up.

The scene was equal parts inspiring and depressing. The votes will certainly hold no weight with the election commission. Kinsakan is aware her election largely amounts to a symbolic venting of frustration but vows to submit her ballot boxes to officials nonetheless.

“I’m heartbroken,” said Srijan Mitipol, an 86-year-old retiree who participated in the makeshift polls.

“In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this. These awful people don’t want us to vote,” she said. “I would fear for my children’s future if it weren’t for the good people I see today.”

Equally heartbroken was Jitsara Suanwong, an 18-year-old college student who’d arrived at the disrupted polls expecting to vote for the first time.

“This is painful for me. I’ve waited for this day since I started school,” Jitsara said. “This isn’t a country for big shots at the top. It’s for people all over. It’s my first vote and I got robbed right before my eyes.”

About that headline: I don't see "rage." I see very intelligent self-organization by people justifiably angry that their rights are being taken away by people who believe they're not worthy of those rights. Even more importantly, the leader is a civil servant, so auntie is a curious term. It's also important that she's a civil servant, since the Democrats/PRDC have also been trying to delegitimize the government (so far, without significant success) by getting government personnel to come out on their side.

* * *

All in all, I'm glad the election did not resolve Thailand's uncertainties with a horrific act of violence; although that could still happen, of course. And I'm also glad that enough people voted for democracy to make delegitimating democracy as such difficult; that seems to me to be the message of the Army's votes. It is true that PRDC/Democrat sabotage was sufficient to force a future election -- Constitutional mechanics w-a-a-a-y to complicated to explain -- unless a compromise is reached. But that's a better outcome than many predicted. My take is that the real weakness of Pheu Thai is that it's not thinking how to harness the creative power showed by the "aunties." But when the aunties hit the streets, not even the Army can stand in their way!

NOTE Thailand is a monarchy, and the lèse-majesté laws are enforced, even against foreigners. Therefore, readers, discussion of the Thai monarchy or royal family is off-topic. Guests in Thailand must obey its laws. Their house, their rules.

NOTE * I know that US readers will be astonished to find that political parties can be characterized in this way, but I assure you, in Thailand this is true!

NOTE ** In the interests of not having to write a scorecard so you can really know the players, as if I could do that, I'm blurring key distinctions between Pheu Thai, the government, and the Democrats, and the PRDC.

NOTE *** I should qualify this by saying that (what I see as) the utter cynicism of the Democrat and PRDC leadership doesn't necessarily apply to their mass following, or not in the same way. I should write about this too at some point, since it falls into the global "revolt of the middle class" frame, but later for that. I find the PRDC following extremely unsympathetic, but at the same time their fears are deeply felt, and have to be respected if there's to be a peaceful outcome. (One of the more unsettling aspect of Bangkok in the last month or so has been the increasing visibility of camo as a fashion statement: Pants, shorts, caps, scarves, tents.)

UPDATE Statement by ANFREL (Asian Network for Free Election):

BANGKOK, 03 February 2014 – The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) commends today those that participated in Thailand’s 02nd February Election. Voters with diverse views, including those voting for parties as well as those exercising their right to “vote no” on the ballot, should be complimented for engaging in such a core part of the democratic process. These voters going to polls despite the possibility of being blocked shows that they place value on the process itself and the rights they have as a part of that process. Indeed, many voters ANFREL spoke with expressed an admirable desire to “use their right” by coming out to vote. Also noteworthy was the bravery and commitment of those Polling Station staff that worked Sunday’s polls. They worked in the face of uncertainty and risk created by the political and electoral violence occurring in the day(s) and weeks before the poll. The commitment to the cause of electoral democracy shown by these groups, voters and polling station officials, should inspire others to re-engage with the democratic process. ...

On both advance voting day as well as Sunday’s General Election Day, ANFREL was deeply troubled by the tragically high numbers of people blocked from exercising their civil and political rights through the ballot. While the rights to Freedom of Assembly and protest remain deeply held values in democracies, those rights cease the moment they impede on fellow citizens’ equally important rights. The right to participate in the electoral process by voting is a fundamental part of Thailand’s democracy and indeed all democracies. To move both conflict resolution and reform forward, ANFREL appeals for all parties to move together to provide quick and fair resolution to this truly saddening situation by allowing all Thai citizens of voting age the right have their voice heard via by-elections.

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