Taking an oath for a clean and fair election

On Thursday, November 15, 2007, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) led representatives of political parties to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok in order to pledge that they would conduct their election campaigns honestly and fairly. In an editorial, The Nation (November 17, 2007) strongly criticized this event as an appeal by the ECT to “supernatural powers,” instead of using its legal means to make the election clean and fair. The editorial stated, “Organizing the oath-taking ceremony made the EC look unprofessional and desperate, and it does not inspire public confidence.”

In fact, this ceremony was not a stand-alone event. Rather, the ECT had devised the khrongkan lueaktang choeng samanachan (project for elections with one opinion) many months ago as an attempt to reduce illegal practices and complaints in the hundreds of local elections the provincial election commissions (PEC) had to organize this year. The project was thus implemented country-wide. In July this year, I had the opportunity to participate in such an event held at the Buddhist temple of tambon (municipality) Ko Khanun in Phanom Sarakham district, Chachoengsao province. This was an elaborate Buddhist ritual, including chanting, that took about two hours. Picture 1 shows the two competing groups of candidates taking the oath.

Picture 1

Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand 

Pictures 2 shows a candidate drinking blessed water. Afterwards, as shown in picture 3, the candidates would be sprinkled with holy water by the temple’s head monk. From here, they proceeded to sign their names on a big banner carrying the text of the oath as well as their names. This would be kept as proof. Finally, the candidates would pay their respect to the main Buddha statues of the temple (picture 4).

Picture 2

Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand

Picture 3

 Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand

Picture 4

 Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand

Obviously, it could be asked what religion had to do with local government elections, and whether it was appropriate for a state agency such as the ECT to use religious beliefs, infrastructure, and personnel merely as tools to achieve its own administrative purposes. Anyway, the project was also implemented country-wide one day after the period of registration of MP candidates had ended.

I observed this ceremony on Saturday, November 17, 2007. In Chachoengsao, the ceremony was performed, starting at eight o’clock, under white tents erected in front of the new building of Wat Sothorn, which houses the original of the famous Buddha statue Luang Pho Sothorn. This was a better choice than to do it inside the hall since the temple was open to the public, and there was a constant stream of visitors. The Muslim candidates were excused from this Buddhist ritual. They took their oath afterwards at a mosque.

At the entrance to the tents, the candidates registered and also signed a document showing their pictures and the logos of their political parties. This would later be printed by the PEC and sent to all households in the respective constituencies, as an attachment to the notification of household heads about who had the right to vote in their houses. The participants also received the ceremony schedule and the text of the oath. When the ceremony had already started, and people might have thought that the Chaisaengs would boycott the event, first Wuthipong and then Thitima finally showed up. An official from the PEC had also noticed their absence, and remarked, “We have invited all candidates. But we cannot force them to participate.” The candidates were seated according to their constituencies.

The provincial governor also briefly addressed the candidates. Picture 5 shows him sitting with two PEC members to the left, and the PEC’s chairperson to the right. Behind them are members of Chachoengsao’s two constituency committees. As on the first day of candidacy registration, the two remaining PEC members were absent. One of them, Chachoengsao’s police commander, had been transferred to the police regional office in Khon Kaen as deputy commander after having served on the PEC for only a few weeks. The fifth member is an active military officer. This set of provincial election commissioners was appointed only on July 3, 2007. The seating arrangement shown in the picture is formalized and used in many bureaucratic settings. There will be a sofa set with a table for drinks etc. for the big guys in the hierarchy, while ordinary chairs for their subordinates and people of lesser importance will be placed behind them.

Picture 5

Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand

The main content of the governor’s address (picture 6) was given in the schedule of the ceremony as follows:

Give advice to the candidates in the election to the House of Representatives of Chachoengsao province in order to create agreement about knowing how to lose, how to win, know forgiveness, and know and love unity. They should maintain being friends before and after the elections so that the election campaign would proceed transparently, without breaking the election law, without vote buying, and without slandering each other. Finally, they should join in developing the province of Chachoengsao.

Though brief, the text and the event of which is was part still express some of the bureaucracy’s patronizing attitude towards politicians. In fact, one wonders why any self-respecting candidate would bother turning up at all at such a ritualistic event imposed upon them by the state bureaucracy.

Picture 6

 Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand

Afterwards, the ceremony moved towards its core, the oath, but not before a PEC member, Prawat Chinotom, a retired lecturer from the Rajaphat University, had given another brief speech. He is shown in picture 7. Note that most of the officials, and even most of the candidates, were dressed in yellow, thus placing themselves within the current bureaucratic-royalist model of Thai politics. One might ask why the candidates, as supposedly independent citizens in a genuinely political role, would adopt the bureaucrats’ prescriptions. In fact, according to the schedule of the event, the candidates were not required to wear yellow dress. Only the dress code for officials was expressly given as “yellow dress,” though one might well ask why the civil servants and state employees taking part in the ceremony were not allowed to wear ordinary outfits. As for the candidates, they were merely asked to dress “politely,” or wear their parties’ dress. Picture 7 shows that the journalists certainly did not identify themselves as belonging to the bureaucratic sphere. None of them, as far as I remember, was dressed in yellow (the man with the yellow shirt taking a picture works in the PEC office).

Picture 7

Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand

Here is a rough translation of the PEC member’s speech (as given in the prepared text):

Chairperson of the election commission, provincial governor, prospective members of parliament, honorable guests. The election commission has ordered us to perform a samanachan [be of one opinion] ceremony today, expecting that those who will compete in this election will have the feeling that they are like brothers and sisters towards each other, like fellow citizens, and not like enemies. They should therefore not use violent means or excessive amounts of money, which would lead to an electoral culture that is not beneficial to the country. It would also not set a good example for the next generation. Therefore, the election commission has invited all of you to join our samanachan ceremony in order to create confidence that the up-coming election of Sunday, 23 December, will have a warm and harmonious atmosphere. This is the electoral culture everybody hopes for.

I have been assigned by the election commission of Chachoengsao province to perform the duty of reading the oath to Luang Pho Putthasothorn and to the sacred things of the candidates, who compete to be Members of Parliament for Chachoengsao province. This will be done today simultaneously in the entire country. Regarding Chachoengsao province, we have organized the ceremony in front of the Uposatha hall of Wat Sothorn, in front of the sacred Luang Pho.

The election commission and the people of Chachoengsao are very pleased that all of you have come here today in order to pay respect, ask for blessing, and make your pledge. This shows your sincerity, that you are ready to volunteer to serve the nation with willingness and determination, that you are ready to be an honorable member of the House, based on knowledge, thoughts, morality, virtue, ethics, and honesty. This will make the people of the province proud. It will also bring honor to your families.

The election commission is confident that the majority of people feel that votes should be gained by clean means, without using various ways of vote buying and vote selling by some groups or some phuak (cliques).

Now the appropriate time has come to ask all of you to resolve to speak your oath together after me as follows.

At this point, the candidates and all others got up from their seats and read the oath, holding a set of flowers and joss sticks between the palms of their hands. This is shown in picture 8. Somehow, Khun Phanee of Phuae Phaendin party did not have the text with her, so she glanced over to her competitor Khun Chatchawal of the Democrats to read the text.

Picture 8

Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand

Again, I have provided a rough translation. As for the ritual at the Emerald Buddha, The Nation’s editorial mentioned above said, “Conspicuously absent was the part that says calamity will befall those who fail to make good on their promises, which has always been part of such ritual oath-taking in this country.” This part was certainly present in the oath as spoken in Chachoengsao.

“My Oath on entering the electoral competition for Members of Parliament, province of Chachoengsao, Sunday, 23 December 2007. I ……………………………………. Political party……………………………, election candidate for Member of the House of Representatives, Chachoengsao province, want to pledge to Luang Pho Sothorn, all sacred things, the guardian angels, both above and below, the ruler of the world of the dead, and the guardian angel of Siam (phra sayam thewathirat), who protects our country, that I will take part in the electoral competition and volunteer to serve the country with honesty, without using money to buy votes, without using illegal means, thereby making the competition proceed with honesty and fairness, and getting good people for the country.

If I do not act according to my oath, directly or indirectly, I and my family should meet with misery and disaster. We should not find happiness in our lives. If I do good and act according to my oath, then all the sacred things mentioned will bless me and my family for happiness, prosperity, being free from illness and all catastrophes, and for having a long life.

After the candidates had spoken their oaths—and how can they be binding as essentially forced and ritualistic statements without inner conviction—they proceeded to a table with two gold-colored trays to put their flowers on, and a gold-colored pot filled with sand for the joss sticks. Most candidates rushed to the table (picture 9), while the Chaisaengs waited in the background to be alone while paying their respect (picture 10). As the last step of the ceremony, the candidates of each of the two constituencies put their signatures on the right side of their names printed on a billboard that also had the oath printed on it. This was similar to what had been done at the ceremony in Ko Khanun briefly described above. Later, these billboards were taken away and erected on the right-hand side of the old building of the provincial hall, I guess as some sort of reminder to the people and the candidates of what the latter had “promised.”

Picture 9

 Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand

Picture 10

Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand

While the ceremony was still being performed, a group of protestors against an expansion of the coal-fired Bang Pakong Power plant appeared and put up a number of banners and protest signs. At the end of the official part, they distributed brown envelopes with documents to each candidate. The final picture 11 shows Wuthipong Chaisaeng carrying that envelope in his right hand and passing the protestors, who were placed at both sides of the exit.

Picture 11

Michael H. Nelson, Chachoengsao Election campaign, November 2007: Thailand 

One of the Democrat party’s candidates, Phatcharakriengchai Singhanat, raised his fist and exclaimed that they should not worry, because the Democrats would solve their problems. This was the one who had angered the officials on registration day by paying his fee by 20 baht notes. Phatcharakriengchai had also added some handwritten lines to the oath which he read with a very load voice after all the others had finished the prepared text, at the end raising up his right hand with the joss sticks.

About Michael H. Nelson, Guest Contributor