Thai court says election can be postponed

The main opposition party is boycotting the February 2 election, while protesters have vowed to disrupt voting

NO POLLS? A Thai anti-government protester waves a national flag during ongoing rallies at a protest site at Victory Monument in downtown Bangkok on January 24, 2014. Photo by Christophe Archambault/AFP

BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled Friday, January 25, that controversial elections scheduled for next month can be delayed due to deadly political unrest, adding to pressure on the embattled premier following weeks of mass opposition protests.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has refused to step down or delay the vote following nearly three months of street rallies aimed at ousting her elected government and installing an unelected “people’s council.”

The main opposition party is boycotting the February 2 election, while protesters have vowed to disrupt voting, saying reforms are needed to tackle corruption and vote-buying before polls are held in around a year to 18 months.

While ruling that the February 2 vote can legally be postponed, the Constitutional Court said it was the joint responsibility of Yingluck and the chairman of the Election Commission to make that decision.

“The ball is in (Yingluck’s) court and the pressure will mount on her to postpone,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

The government had previously rejected the Election Commission’s call to delay the polls, noting that under the constitution an election should normally be held no more than 60 days after the dissolution of parliament, which happened in early December.

Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party said it was still studying the court ruling.

“If the election is postponed, would the protesters stop? Would the opposition join the election?” party spokesman Prompong Nopparit said.

Hundreds injured in clashes

Nine people have been killed and hundreds injured in grenade attacks, drive-by shootings and street clashes since the protests began at the end of October.

On Thursday, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban threatened to “close every route” to polling stations, saying the election would not be allowed to take place.

A survey by Bangkok University released on Friday showed that nearly 80 percent of roughly 1,000 respondents planned to vote next month.

But some southern constituencies have no candidates because demonstrators blocked registrations, so even if Yingluck’s party wins it may not have enough MPs to appoint a government.

The demonstrators have staged a self-styled “shutdown” of Bangkok since January 13, erecting roadblocks and rally stages at several main intersections including in the main hotel and shopping districts, although attendance has gradually fallen since last week.

The government on Tuesday declared a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas to deal with the unrest.

Advance voting on Sunday is seen as a litmus test of whether the polls will go smoothly.

The kingdom has been periodically rocked by political bloodshed since Yingluck’s older brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was overthrown by royalist generals in a coup more than seven years ago.

“Red Shirt” supporters of the tycoon-turned politician, who lives overseas to avoid a jail term for corruption, have said they oppose an election delay.

“If there is no election or the election is postponed or a neutral person is appointed prime minister, we will not accept it,” Red Shirt chairwoman Thida Thavornseth told reporters.

State of emergency

The government’s emergency decree gives the authorities the power to ban public gatherings of more than five people, prohibit protesters using certain routes and forbid media spreading misinformation.

But the government has not yet used any of those measures, and has ruled out using force to end the rallies.

When a state of emergency was last imposed in 2010 during pro-Thaksin protests, the previous government cracked down with armoured vehicles and soldiers firing live rounds. More than 90 people were killed and nearly 1,900 injured.

The military, traditionally a staunch supporter of the anti-Thaksin establishment, has said it wants to remain neutral during the current standoff, although the army chief has refused to rule out another coup to seize power from Yingluck.

The political dispute comes at a time of disquiet among many Thais about the health of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and who will be in power to oversee the transition when his more than six-decade reign eventually comes to an end. – 

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