News reports from Thailand feature representatives of the Democrat Party (soon to be renamed as Democratexceptwhenwecannotwinanelectionandthenacoupisok Party) suggesting that a coup was the only way out of the political impasse. This argument is based, in part, on the claim that elections under the Thaksin government did not provide a free and fair basis for expression of the people’s will.

So, what were elections like under Thaksin? This is a big question that, hopefully, will be the subject of considerable research in the coming years. To start the ball rolling, here is one perspective based on my observations of the February 2005 election in a rural district in Chiang Mai province.

First, although I was deep within Thaksin’s northern Thai heartland this was a real contest. The opposition candidate was highly regarded – had had previously served as the local representative; he was renowned for his contribution to local development; and was regarded as having an excellent rapport with local people. By contrast the Thai Rak Thai candidate was commonly criticised for his somewhat formal and aloof manner and his distance from local people. Real political assessments were being made of the alternatives candidates and there was a common feeling that the opposition candidate stood a real chance of regaining his old seat. According to one well informed local politician there was a 50-50 chance that Thai Rak Thai would lose.

Second, the election seemed to be conducted in an atmosphere free of intimidation and threat. Opposition electoral material was widely displayed and distributed. Local people, including many in key government and private enterprise positions, spoke freely about their dislike of the Thaksin government. There was regular discussion of the good and bad points of government policy and of the alternatives proposed by the opposition. In the village where I stayed (and where I have been conducting research for several years) local canvassers for opposition parties (and for the government) went about their business freely and with good humour. On voting day itself the poll was conducted in a relaxed manner. A local village electoral committee, with outside observers, managed the polling station. There was a relaxed and desultory police presence (one officer) and local observers for the main parties.

Third, the actual voting process seemed free of opportunity for manipulation. As voters arrived their names were checked off against the village electoral roll; ballot papers were scrupulously accounted for; voting was private; ballot boxes were always in full public view; at the end of voting the boxes were carfefully sealed; the sealed boxes were taken in convoy with numerous observers to the a high school in a neighbouring district where all votes from the district were counted; when the boxes were opened ballot papers (but not votes) were counted to ensure they tallied with the number of ballots issued at the polling station; and, finally, they were combined with the other ballot papers from the electorate to ensure that individual polling station counts could not be made. Overall I was struck by the level of transparency and openness in the polling and counting process – considerably more open to public view I have seen in Australia.

Of course, this is just one experience in one of Thailand’s many electorates. But before we accept that a coup was the only way out of the political standoff (as the Democratexceptwhenwecannotwinanelectionandthenacoupisok Party seems to be arguing) we surely need much more solid evidence that the electoral system was so skewed that the political will of the people could not be expressed.