Students step forward as watchdogs for upcoming elections

First-year university student Wirocha Chatchawanwong will cast her vote in Thailand’s upcoming general elections for the first time, and is determined to make sure her vote is properly accounted for.

To that end, Wirocha has signed up as a volunteer to observe the polls on 14 May, joining the ranks of college students, activists and members of the public who will be looking out for any chicanery or attempt to subvert the results.

“I don’t want to vote in a rigged election, no. I’ll be keeping my eyes on it,” Wirocha, a student at Rangsit University, north of Bangkok, told University World News. “Otherwise, if anything [irregular] happens, I’ll be very disappointed. The election only happens once every four years, and this will be my first election ever.”

The May general election is the first major poll since students and demonstrators took to the streets in 2020 demanding reforms at nearly every level of the political hierarchy, including the monarchy – an institution once thought to be beyond reproach. Protests persisted for months until they were crushed.

All 500 seats in the national parliament will be up for grabs, and the election itself is widely seen as the ultimate referendum on the fate of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who seized power in a 2014 military coup.

“It’s not only about choosing someone; we also have to see whether the election is truly transparent,” said Chayapol Wattanamongkhon, a first-year student at Bansomdejchaopraya Rajabhat University on Bangkok’s western bank. He has also volunteered for an election watchdog group. “If it’s not transparent, then what’s the point of voting?” he told University World News.

Wirocha and Chayapol are among four million Thais who qualify as first-time voters in the upcoming election, accounting for about 7.6% of the total of 52 million eligible voters. The voting age in Thailand is 18.

Watchdog groups

While voting in Thailand in recent years has been generally free and open – the opposition can field candidates, violence is rare, and there is enthusiastic media coverage – many fear the 14 May polls might be subject to irregularities.

A number of poll watchdog groups have sprung up in the past weeks, like The Watcher, a consortium of news organisations, universities and civic groups that have recruited hundreds of volunteers to monitor the count and report the live results for the public to see. Chayapol is among the volunteers.

“Frankly speaking, under this government, I think anything can happen,” said Chayapol, explaining why he signed up. He will be visiting different polling stations after the vote concludes on 14 May to observe the count. If he spots any missteps, he will log the case and report it to his network for further action.

For some, the Election Commission of Thailand is considered a prime suspect. While the constitution recognises it as an ‘independent agency’ outside the bounds of the ruling government, all its seven members were nevertheless chosen by a rubber stamp parliament that served under Prayut in the aftermath of his 2014 putsch.

Critics fear the voting regulator’s past affiliation with the incumbent leader could somehow skew the results in favour of Prayut, who is running for another term.

The commission does not have a stellar track record. When Thailand went to the polls four years ago, a news conference on the preliminary result was postponed because an election official said a calculator was not available, batches of overseas ballots were declared null because they arrived late for the count, while the result for a major constituency in Nakhon Pathom province had to be recounted due to large discrepancies.

Concerns deepened after the Election Commission announced in February that a real-time result will not be available for this year’s election. The officials cited technical limitations and potential inaccuracies, but transparency activists say the absence of live data may leave the nearly 100,000 polling stations across the country vulnerable to manipulation.

Student participation

Chayapol said most of his peers are only concerned about which candidates will win, rather than the integrity of the election. “I’ve tried talking to my classmates and friends, but many of them aren’t interested. They’re only interested in who to vote for, but not how the process works.”

Nevertheless, he believes more students could participate in the poll watchdog programmes as the election approaches. After all, Chayapol recalled that he heard about The Watcher from a university chat group. “I don’t know who else signed up,” he said.

Wirocha is volunteering with a similar initiative called Vote62, comprising several advocacy and activist groups. Due to the sheer number of polling stations in different parts of the country, Vote62 has been hosting workshops in many parts of Thailand to train local community members to observe the counting at their nearest polling station, she said.

She added that nearly 40 students at Khon Kaen University immediately signed up as election observers with Vote62 after it held a workshop at the university, though she was unsure if the same enthusiasm is shared by the student community in general.

“Part of it might be because many students don’t know about this kind of initiative yet,” Wirocha said. “But once there’s publicity, many are interested.”

A three-hour session called “how to spot cheating in three hours” has been held in more than a dozen provinces and has been a successful tool to draw in more volunteers, according to Wirocha. “I’m very excited about it,” she said of the poll.

Young voices want to be heard

Apart from the obvious political stakes, the upcoming election has profound implications for many of the younger generation. It is an opportunity for their voice to be heard again after their previous attempts to speak out were crushed after months of demonstrations in 2020.

Crackdowns were launched and legal action taken by the authorities to suppress the movement, most notably under the lèse-majesté law, a draconian law that in effect bans any negative discussion about the Thai Royal Family, with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

More than 240 people have been charged with lèse-majesté. In January, a 14-year-old was slapped with the offence, the youngest suspect to date. She was later denied bail and sent to a juvenile correctional facility.

Under the weight of physical and legal threats, the protests eventually dissipated.

But dissent persisted among those who joined the street protests, including Wirocha, who said many of her friends are intending to vote for parties campaigning for reform of the lèse-majesté law, such as the progressive anti-junta Move Forward Party, and she’s certain that university students will take to the streets again at any sign of voting fraud.

“If the election is rigged, they’ll definitely come out,” Wirocha said.