The recent general elections held in Thailand on May 14 generated interests in the region because of emergence of new parties and young leadership. The rise of new leaders marked a new chapter in Thai history. The political circumstances in Thailand and Nepal are different. But the conduct of elections in Thailand does provide some lessons to us. As a part of Asian Network for Elections (ANFREL), a number of Nepalis were invited to observe the elections.
The total number of voters in Thailand is 52,200,045 - 27,150,994 (51.9 per cent) women and 25,136,051 (48.1 per cent) men. Thailand has constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. It has a bicameral legislature – the Lower House is called the House of Representatives (HoR) and the Upper House the Senate. It follows a mixed election system. The HoR has 500 members, including 400 members from single constituency elections and 100 from proportional representation. The Senate, on the other hand, is composed of 250 members appointed by the Royal Thai Military.
Code of conduct
Following the military takeover in 2014, Thailand promulgated new constitution in 2017 and based on which two general elections were held. The ANFREL is an organisation that has been involved in the observation of elections in Asian countries, including Nepal. It aims to assess the overall conduct of the elections in line with international norms and principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and regional instruments like the Bangkok Declaration on Free and Fair Elections and Dili Indicators of Democratic Elections. The ANFREL observers will at all times comply with the Declaration of Principles and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers.
Based on this principle, the ANFREL had deployed three election analysts, 10 long term observers, 13 short term observers and more than a dozen additional volunteers for the Thai general elections in 2023. There were 4,710 candidates and 67 political parties in the elections. Thai law specifies that all citizens over 18 years of age must vote. In course of observation, some notable aspects were observed, which could be of interest to Nepal as well. Some of these aspects are discussed below.
Thailand makes use of advance voting system. Under this system, any eligible voter can register for advance voting and cast the vote through ballot some time before the election day. This system can be useful for Nepal where over half a million staffs and security personnel are denied their right to vote because they are deployed elsewhere. If advance voting is recognised, they could vote a week or ten days before the actual voting day.
This system can also be applied to allow overseas Nepalis to send their vote through ballot. The Supreme Court of Nepal has, time and again, asked the authorities to ensure the voting rights of overseas Nepalis. Such system is in use in other countries like Sri Lanka. Millions of Nepalis live and work overseas and there must be a workable system put in place to ensure their voting rights.
Thailand makes use of election and administrative laws to conduct elections in free and fair manner. It also has ceilings regarding the amount a candidate and a party can spend in election. Standing candidates can spend up to 1.9 million baht (NRs 7.22 million) while it is 44 million baht (NRs 167.2 million) for the political parties.
The candidates mostly make use of digital and online media for campaigning and canvassing. Rallies are rare. But transportation networks are not disrupted even on election day. Nepal, too, is working to introduce integrated election laws in future, which can replace scores of election laws, codes, procedures, directives, etc. and streamline election governance. At present, over 100 laws, including 9 Acts, 11 Rules, over 60 Directives and Code of Conduct are in place to guide the election administration.
The issue of allowing voters to choose None of the Above (NOTA) option in ballot paper has been hugely debated in Nepal. The Supreme Court has already directed the government to provide this option to Nepali voters, which has not been implemented yet. One reason for this reluctance to enforce NOTA is the fear among the political leadership that many voters may choose the option sowing doubt over the legitimacy on the whole body politic. But if experiences of Thailand are anything to go by, such fears might be misguided. In Thailand, less than one per cent of voters tick the NOTA option.
Negligible number of invalid votes
Thailand elections also had notably negligible number of invalid votes despite the fact that the election commission does not carry out voter education campaign. Their ballot papers are simpler and smaller in size. The voters can just tick on the election symbol accompanied by photo of candidates. There were less than 1 per cent invalid votes. Nepali authorities should ponder over this point as the use of large ballot papers, messy inks and complicated system have been blamed for higher number of invalid votes here.
In Thailand, all the votes are counted in the voting centres manually but in quick manner. Within 24 hours, almost all results are announced. The polling centres were wide and spacious. Around 11 personnel are deployed to each centre, including two security personnel and nine staff who were mostly women teachers. They immediately start counting the votes after the polls closed at 5 pm. This can be a lesson for Nepal where complicated procedures have to be followed after the polls are closed leading to long and delayed counting process.
(The author is general secretary of General Election Observation Committee, Nepal and was deployed to observe the Thai elections in May.)