If Thailand holds elections in July, will they be fair?

Yes …

and no.

Yes, they will be fair in terms of basic electoral process. I have little sympathy for the claims made by some on the opposition/red shirt side of politics that Abhisit will use electoral cheating and manipulation to hold onto office. These are exactly the charges that were levelled against Thaksin and his allies. It is entirely predictable that they are now being levelled against Abhisit.

Claim and counter-claim about cheating are part and parcel of political competition in Thailand. But it is a dangerous political ritual that, ultimately, weakens faith in the electoral process itself.

I have seen no compelling evidence that Thailand’s recent elections have not reflected the will of the electorate. If it is held, the 2011 election will be no different. It will, in overall procedural terms, be fair.

But, if Abhisit does manage to form another government after the election, broader issues of fairness will be far from resolved. Is an election fair when it is widely believed that powerful figures are only likely to accept one result? Is an election fair when the main opposition party has been neutered by the courts, not once but twice? Is an election fair when scores of key opposition figures have been banned from politics? Is an election fair when the alternative leader – illegally deposed in a military coup – is unable to contest it?

Of all these questions, the political fate of Thaksin is the trickiest for Thailand’s political future. As long as the Democrats are unwilling or unable to face him at an election, they will have to live with the charge of electoral unfairness. Many may think that such a caveat on the government’s legitimacy is a reasonable price to pay for a Thaksin-free Thailand. But it is a price that is paid in the currency of electoral fairness and while it may be a short term fix for some, in the longer term it may prove very costly indeed.