Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai made news in early November when he announced that he saw no need for foreign observers to monitor the country’s general elections which are expected to take place between February and May of 2019.
“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.
That the Thai Junta is appearing to set itself up to bar election observers is somewhat surprising.
According to Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Australia’s Griffith University who specializes in authoritarianism, democratization, dictators and flawed elections in Southeast Asia, it is “increasingly uncommon, both in Southeast Asia and around the world that you’d bar election observers altogether”.
Traditionally, Morgenbesser said, authoritarian regimes faced a key decision when it comes to election observers:
“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, according to Morgenbesser, is to work with what have been dubbed “zombie election observers” or “shadow observation groups”.
This is a method that Morgenbesser says has been used “from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe” by military juntas, personalist dictators and authoritarian regimes. These governments often employ far right-aligned groups from Eastern Europe or individuals from places like India or Venezuela, “they’ve even employed bloggers or lawyers” to certify elections said Morgenbesser.
But, he added, “it doesn’t matter who is the individual or who is the group.”
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 the work of these so-called zombie observers, look no further than Cambodia’s most recent national elections.
When the United States and the European Union withdrew support for the July 29 polls and observers from Japan, and Australia refused to take part in what had been widely labeled a “sham election,” Cambodia turned to shadowy groups of and individuals of dubious democratic bona fides to get the job done.
The groups included the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International, or CAPDI, International Conference of Asian Political Parties, or ICAPP, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, all three of which, according to research by Morgenbesser have a thoroughly documented history of questionable election rulings. CAPDI and ICAPP acted as observers in Cambodia’s controversial 2013 elections, which sparked mass protests and caused the United States and the EU to express concerns over possible electoral irregularities.
CAPDI and ICAPP found those 2013 elections to be “a triumph of popular will” as well as being free, fair and transparent”.
In Cambodia’s 2018 elections, those groups were joined by individuals like Anton Caragea, whose previous glowing praise of dictators in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Zimbabwe raise 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 that, 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,” Morgenbesser said, “because it suggests that they’re not really learning from other examples around the world.”
But, when picking between two bad options—between no observers or zombie observers—Morgenbesser said that Thailand’s apparent strategy of barring observers is probably the healthier one for the Thai political ecosystem 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 added, “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 way.“