Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai made headlines last month when he declared there was no need for foreign observers to monitor the country’s general elections, scheduled for next February.
“Allowing foreign observers means we have problems, in their eyes or in our own view. It means we can’t take care of ourselves. And that’s inauspicious,” Don told reporters at Government House, adding that the best observers would be the Thai voters themselves.
The junta’s move to bar any international scrutiny of the election goes against the global trend and has surprised some experts.
“[It is] increasingly uncommon, both in Southeast Asia and around the world, that you’d bar election observers altogether,” says Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Australia’s Griffith University who specialises in authoritarianism, democratisation, dictators and flawed elections in Southeast Asia.
Authoritarian regimes face a key decision when it comes to election observers, explains Morgenbesser:
The third way
“You can either invite professional observers into the country, at the risk of them discovering how fraudulent the process is, or you can bar them altogether which suggests that the process is going to be fraudulent anyway.”
But, in the last decade, innovative authoritarian regimes around the world have hit upon a third option that lends a thin veneer of legitimacy to the electoral process and suits their needs very nicely.
The middle ground approach is to work with what are dubbed “zombie election observers” or “shadow observation groups”.
This method, says Morgenbesser, has been used “from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe” by military juntas, dictators and authoritarian regimes. These governments often employ far-right groups from Eastern Europe or individuals from places like India or Venezuela. “They’ve even employed bloggers or lawyers to certify elections,” says Morgenbesser.
“It doesn’t matter who is the individual or who is the group,” he adds.
What matters is this: “You invite these groups in under the premise that they will give the election a clean bill of health and they will do that because presumably you’ve paid them for a service.”
To understand how these “zombie” observers operate, look no further than Cambodia’s recent national elections.
When the United States and the European Union withdrew their support for the July 29 polls, and observers from Japan and Australia refused to take part in what was widely labelled a “sham election”, Cambodia turned to shadowy groups and individuals of dubious democratic bona fides to get the job done.
The groups included the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI), International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, all three of which have a well documented history of questionable election rulings, according to research by Morgenbesser. The CAPDI and ICAPP acted as observers in Cambodia’s controversial 2013 elections, which sparked mass protests and caused the US and the EU to express concerns over possible electoral irregularities.
In contrast, the CAPDI and ICAPP found the elections to be “a triumph of popular will” as well as being free, fair and transparent”.
In this year’s Cambodian elections, those groups were joined by individuals like Anton Caragea, whose glowing praise of dictators in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Zimbabwe raises questions about his judgement.
Indeed, despite the context of Cambodia’s polls – the main opposition party was banned outright and reports from across the country suggested widespread voter intimidation – the monitors that did show up to observe the elections deemed the election “free and fair”.
Given all this, Morgenbesser is slightly taken aback that the Thai junta would not make use of these types of observers.
“The fact that the Thai junta is not willing to do that at all is surprising,” he says, “because it suggests that they’re not really learning from other examples around the world.”
But, when picking between two bad options – no observers or zombie observers – Morgenbesser says that Thailand’s apparent strategy of barring observers altogether is probably healthier for Thai politics in the long run.
“If you don’t have any of these zombie groups, the junta can’t then say ‘the zombie group said it was great’. They have to prove it themselves.
And, he adds, “given the general incompetence of the Thai junta I think they’re going to struggle to do that without any outside groups helping them do so. It doesn’t send a good signal either