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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.


The current legal framework gives the ECT both investigatory and adjudicatory powers. As such, the ECT occupies the roles of police, prosecutor, judge and jury. Moreover, the law directs the ECT to impose severe criminal penalties for electoral violations including the dissolution of political parties and revocation of political rights.

Based on constitutional changes made in 2007, some ECT decisions are reviewable by the Supreme Court. Still, the immense responsibility placed upon the ECT takes away from its primary responsibility to conduct the elections, overwhelms the commission with its workload, and places it in the middle of hugely partisan political battles.

Empowering an entity with such wide-ranging authority necessarily contributes to a perception of bias, be it justified or not. While international election experts generally concur that the ECT has functioned in a generally unbiased manner, they also agree that the sweeping role of the commission makes it a more likely target for corruption by those in power as well as an actual target of public distrust, anger, and pressure — as evidenced by events on April 8.

Electoral disputes in Thailand have a storied history. While ongoing reforms have made vast improvements, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), in collaboration with various partners in Thailand, has advocated for modifications to the basic structure of election adjudication and the system of penalties for electoral malfeasance.

Creating a system by which election complaints are administered and adjudicated by separate independent bodies is a successful model through which to address bias, whether perceived or real. And, more reasonable and graduated penalties would provide for a wider range of options short of dissolving political parties and revoking voting rights. We believe such changes would go a long way in addressing many of the issues that are manifest in this week's protests.

The support of the international community, including alliances such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which met April 8 and 9, can be very helpful in guiding Thailand through these reforms. The international community should be prepared to provide comparative perspective and experience to support efforts by Thai policy-makers and practitioners to produce effective laws and implementation measures.

Thailand’s long-standing reform efforts — particularly those directed at greater checks and balances and separation of powers — are commendable. They are also essential to the country’s political stability and democratic consolidation.

Like any democracy, adjustments are required to meet the ongoing needs of an effective, legitimate and accountable government. As Thailand’s protracted political crisis suggests, meaningful legal and structural reform of the electoral system is required to prevent further political volatility.

By Chad Vickery, Regional Director, Europe & Asia, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). The author would like to thank IFES legal fellows Jeremy Hunt and Jennifer Mishory for their assistance.