Icon NOW: Thailand’s EC Chairman Gets Candid About 2019 Challenges, Lessons Learned

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What’s in an icon? As part of Thailand NOW’s mission to share authentic insights into all things Thai, we’re spotlighting iconic individuals who have not only excelled in their respective areas, but influenced the complex tapestry of Thailand as it exists today and, in doing so, inspire us to be a part of the fabric of Thai society.

In this Icon NOW interview, Ittiporn Boonpracong, Chairman of the Election Commission of Thailand, gets candid about the lessons learned from past elections and what it takes to persevere as a custodian of the democratic process in Thailand.

Ittiporn Boonpracong Chairman of the Election Commission of Thailand at one of the discussions about election 2023
Source: Election Commission of Thailand Facebook Page

Imagine for a moment: it’s 2019, and the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) is charged with organizing free and fair elections for the first time since 2014. An inter-departmental team announces that unofficial results will be public by 8pm on Election Day. Then everything that can go wrong has gone wrong.

“When it was 9:45pm, I rushed down from my office to the press room. We hadn’t succeeded at anything. There was a lot of confusion,” says ECT Chairman Ittiporn Boonpracong.

Most of this confusion came from the fact that the polling staff — who had been working since 5am that day — were responsible for entering the vote tally for each candidate into the ECT’s Rapid Report system. Compounding human error with technical difficulties, the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) reported that observers saw several polling staff open the Rapid Report app only to be met with unresponsive screens. Once incorrect data is entered into the system, it is difficult to revise.

“That is a disaster. A calamity.”

“That’s the first black spot,” Ittiporn recounts candidly. “‘This polling station has only 500 eligible voters; why does No. 1 have 600 votes?’ That is a disaster. A calamity.” The second black spot would come from the late arrival of ballots from New Zealand, invalidating the votes of over 1,500 Thai nationals.

Despite his clear-eyed assessment and personal ownership of the 2019 election, Ittiporn remains unbowed by the challenges of his office. As a law-educated career diplomat, it comes with the territory.

“Find ways to better serve.”

“You can’t blame anyone once a mistake is made. You have to assume that it’s your mistake. And you have to work with that attitude. Attitude is very important. And I can take anything that is thrown at me because it’s normal once you work in this kind of position: don’t be ashamed, don’t be shy, don’t feel bad, don’t be sad. Find ways to better serve,” Ittiporn declares.

Few can claim to be better qualified for the position. Before being elected to the post of ECT chair by his fellow commissioners, Ittiporn had spent 36 years serving at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, representing Thailand in several multilateral assignments.

The lifelong diplomat has been dispatched to the Royal Thai Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya; the Permanent Mission of Thailand to the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok; and the Permanent Mission of Thailand to the United Nations in New York, USA. He further served as Chairman of the Group of 77 (Nairobi Chapter), representing 133 developing countries. Significantly, he has served extensively in the MFA’s Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs.

UN Headquarters in New York United States of America
Source: lev radin / Shutterstock.com

Speaking of his legal chops and diplomatic experience, Ittiporn explains, “That deepened my experience working multilaterally and with people who think differently. The best way is to try to listen, be open-minded, and try to find common ground. In doing so, you need patience, you need perseverance, you need to be positive, and you need to be firm, focused, and in control of yourself. When you walk into the room, there may be 100 ideas, and you need to figure out how to get everyone in the room to walk out with the same understanding.”

Despite retiring from the Foreign Ministry and initially considering a position with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, Ittiporn heard the ECT was open to new commissioners and decided to apply.

“Work is kind of addictive to me.”

“Work is kind of addictive to me,” he admits. “Being at the Election Commission allows me to work with all sectors of society and allows me to work with international partners too. So it’s a good package for me. And you will feel the need and the heat from the position. I don’t invite trouble, but if there isn’t anyone else to deal with it, I’m always willing and I always volunteer to do it.”

After his Senate appointment as election commissioner, the new commissioners voted to appoint him as ECT Chairman. Since then, he has continued to steer the polling authority through local, municipal, gubernatorial, and national elections. He has worked relentlessly to establish consensus among fellow election commissioners while navigating the practical and sometimes unprecedented implications of six major laws: the 2017 Constitution, organic laws governing the election commission, political parties, house elections, and senate selections, and acts governing referendums and local elections.

“It’s a good training ground for the members of the ECT. Next year [in 2024], we will need to do the selection of senators, and by the end of next year, the provincial local elections again, and we might need to do a referendum depending on the new administration. It gives us a kind of dynamism. It’s very vibrant,” Ittiporn says.

An elder at a polling station to cast their vote in 2023
Source: 2p2play / Shutterstock.com

The perseverance of the ECT and its stalwart chairman — not to mention, four more years of experience — has finally paid off.

ANFREL, which had been critical of the national poll in 2019, released an interim report on the 2023 election commending both the strong voter turnout as well as the Election Commission’s “much-improved delivery of results.” The non-governmental organization further lauded the advance voting proceedings as “a clear expression of commitment to improve the level of electoral participation and level of trust in Thailand’s democratic system.”

There have been two critical differences between the Election Commission’s approach in 2019 versus 2023: a greater emphasis on practical implementation and transparency.

A polling station for advance voting for general election 2023 in Thailand
Source: Brickinfo Media / Shutterstock.com

“The scope and scale of responsibilities are much broader, deeper, detailed, and involve everyday life, not just on Election Day,” says Ittiporn. He added that the election management body must be “more vocal, more visible, and interactive.” The ECT worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to secure advanced voting for overseas Thais, as well as the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security to provide better accessibility for voters with disabilities and the elderly.

The ECT has made major strides in its current roster, though Ittiporn sees plenty of room for improvement. In addition to combating a rise in social media disinformation, the ECT Chairman looks forward to further expanding accessibility amid a rapidly aging Thai population, and possibly even advocating for voting rights and means among inmates. Referring to technical disqualifications of public office holders, Ittiporn believes we should “let the law work itself to delete it.”

“The election is a matter for the people.”

While the efficacy, transparency, and impartiality of election management bodies are essential to organizing free and fair elections, Ittiporn takes great satisfaction in Thailand’s impressive voter turnout and the political participation of the Thai citizenry.

“I’m personally happy that more people are aware of how important the election is to them, and the fact that they come out and be part of it, to observe how the election is done that day,” Ittiporn says. “We have a lot of volunteers. We watched iLaw join forces with us to observe each polling station. This is good because, after all, the election is a matter for the people: people electing people, people managing the election themselves.”

When asked if he had any advice for the next ECT Chairman, Ittiporn, who admittedly underestimated the scope and scale of the position, says, “My suggestion is for them to please study the qualifications of the ECT members that was explicitly spelled out in the organic law on the ECT. […] You have to be adaptable, you have to be quick: quick in reacting, quick in providing better service. If you have this mindset, whatever background you have, you can do it. So have the right attitude.”

Ittiporn Boonpracong standing in front of portraits of former chairpersons of the Election Commission of Thailand
Ittiporn Boonpracong standing in front of portraits of former chairpersons of the Election Commission of Thailand. He is the first ECT Chairman since the 2017 constitution was enacted.
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