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Opinion: Thai protests highlight need for electoral reform

An independent electoral adjudicator could help prevent future demonstrations from turning into a democratic crisis.

A Thai army soldier lies on the ground after he was injured during clashes between anti-government Red Shirt protesters and Thai army soldiers near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, April 10, 2010. Thai troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas at thousands of demonstrators, who fought back with guns, grenades and petrol bombs in riots which killed eight people in Bangkok's worst political violence in 18 years. (Kerek Wongsa/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — This week’s protests in Thailand are just the latest manifestation of growing political tension in the country, which is itself reflective of deep societal divides in the years since the 2006 coup.

The political tension is exacerbated immeasurably by the way in which elections are adjudicated, and as tens of thousands of protesters continue to fill the streets demanding a variety of reforms, the importance of improvements to the electoral system becomes even more vital.

Seeds of discord were sown when Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who holds favor with Bangkok's elite, came to power 15 months ago following a series of constitutional court decisions that removed or disqualified his political rivals for the position.

The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) maintains that Abhisit came to power illegitimately. The red-shirted UDD maintains that his predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed in a 2006 coup amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power, is the country's true leader. Despite his enormous wealth, the Red Shirts consider Thaksin to be an advocate on behalf of the poor.

The UDD is now into its fourth week of protests aimed at forcing the army and prime minister to dissolve parliament and call new elections within 15 days.

The government maintains that holding elections in the limited timeframe the Red Shirts are asking for is impossible, though the government has said it may be willing to dissolve parliament within nine months. Compromise on the part of the protesters does not seem to be forthcoming, however, and continued turmoil holds the risk of violence.

On Thursday, the Red Shirts, alleging bias in the handling of complaints by the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT), stormed its premises to force the resolution of a year-old complaint against the ruling party. The protesters’ decision to move against the ECT was highly targeted that could significantly impact the overall political situation and future elections in Thailand.