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Elections

Thai Elections – Challenging Times Ahead

Red shirts rally in Thailand
Red, yellow or camouflage? Photo: Clark and Kim Kays/flickr

Thai parties are gearing up for general elections as Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is expected to dissolve the House of Representatives shortly. His Democrat Party came to power through a parliamentary vote, after the previous government was toppled. The upcoming elections will now put the government’s mandate to a popular test. So far so good. It is very unlikely though that the five-year-old political crisis will end with the formation of a new government.

Thailand’s deep political divide is driven by the underlying monarchical succession – the first of its kind since 1946. The system on which the Thai society is built is in flux, leaving everyone struggling to be in a better position.

The Democrat Party has possibly gained some popularity among ordinary Thais, but all in all it remains an elite movement rooted in Bangkok’s establishment. Thus there’s a good chance that the Pheu Thai Party – the de facto party of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – receives most votes in the poll.

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Government

The Arab Uprisings and the State of Emergency

Emergency exit
Some declare a state of emergency and others lift it in an attempt to get out of the mess. Photo: v1ctor/flickr

Perversely, it took a state of emergency to have Syria’s 48-year-old emergency rule removed. But although this had been a key demand of the protesters, the move is now seen as too little too late. In many ways, the situation is reminiscent of the events early February, when Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak’s vague promises of reform were only salt in the wounds of the crowds on Tahrir Square.

A state of emergency derives from a governmental declaration in response to an extraordinary situation posing a fundamental threat to the country. Too often, however, dictatorial regimes misuse such rules for self-serving purposes: they introduce unwarranted restrictions on human rights and civil liberties, neutralize political opponents or postpone elections. There has also been a tendency to maintain states of emergency long after the original reason for its proclamation has disappeared. The result is a constitutional dictatorship.

With the turmoil in the Arab world, it’s easy to lose track of where emergency laws still apply. Here’s a brief overview of some of the recent changes:

Categories
International Relations

Sanctions for Sanctions’ Sake?

Still not much to celebrate. Photo: Valerie Sticher

Last week, the EU eased its long-held travel and financial restrictions on four Burmese ministers and lifted the ban on high-level visits to the country. The decision follows the swearing-in of a new government in March and is the first partial reversal of punitive measures against the suppressive regime. So, are things finally heading in the right direction?

It’s easy to suggest otherwise. The elections in November last year were neither free, nor fair. The new, nominally civilian regime is still dominated by the military elite. Praise for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest is hardly due, given the regime’s bizarre reasoning for extending her detention in the first place. And ethnic conflicts are still a sad (and under-reported) reality in the resource-rich country. But some subtle changes give hope for restrained optimism. Perhaps most importantly, powers are now distributed more widely. In the past, literally everything – from defense and security issues to social and economic matters – had been controlled by a single, authoritarian leader. Now there are four (partially overlapping) key centers of power: the presidency, the military, the parliament and the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

These changes are not the result of sanctions, but most likely part of Than Shwe’s exit strategy. In an attempt to avoid the miserable fate he imposed on his predecessor, Than Shwe has put in place constitutional arrangements that make it difficult for a single person to emerge as a new strongman.

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Elections

Goodluck, Nigeria and Kazakhstan

Your boss promised us to play it fair this time. Photo: oscepa/flickr

Nigerians finally cast their votes for a new national assembly last Saturday, in the first of three successive elections. It did not start quite as imagined. A week earlier, polling had to be abandoned after election materials failed to arrive in many parts of the country. A bomb blast at an electoral office on the eve of the election killed several people, and polling itself was marred by sporadic violence.

But compared to the 2007 elections, which were characterized by violence, organized vote-rigging and fraud, Nigeria might do pretty well this time. A well respected academic and civil society activist presides over the Independent National Election Commission, and incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan has made repeated commitments to respect the rules of democracy. His main challengers include a former military ruler, who is now taking his chances at the polls. And even the estimated 10 to 15 percent ghost voters do not seem so bad after all. Progress is relative. According to one of Crisis Group’s Senior Analysts, “The polls could mark a turning point for Nigeria”.

The same cannot be said for Kazakhstan. In a sham election earlier this month, President Nursultan Nazarbayev won 95.5% of the votes in a turnout of 89.5%. Nazarbayev’s three challengers all expressed support for his candidacy and, bizarrely, one of them even admitted having voted for him. The way in which the elections took place not only embarrasses Western diplomats, whose praise for the call for elections now seems somewhat premature.