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Thai Court Rules Snap Election Can Be Delayed

  • Ron Corben

Members of the "White Shirt" movement hold a candlelight vigil to demand democratic elections and political reforms in Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 24, 2014.

Members of the "White Shirt" movement hold a candlelight vigil to demand democratic elections and political reforms in Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 24, 2014.

Thailand's Constitutional Court says the Election Commission has the power to postpone the election scheduled for February 2 and has called for talks between the commission and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. But Yingluck's ruling party remains steadfast in pressing ahead with the vote despite ongoing street protests.

The commission had been seeking a court ruling on the extent of its powers to make decisions on the future of the poll, in light of protests in Bangkok that have left nine people dead and hundreds injured over the past three months.

The government this week declared a 60-day state of emergency covering Bangkok and nearby provinces, aimed at curbing the protests. The emergency declaration has raised concerns by human rights groups.

Legal experts say under Thailand's 2007 constitution, the five-member Election Commission has the power to postpone the vote. The commission had been seeking government support to delay the polls. The constitutional court said the commission and prime minister should hold talks on any new polling date.

"It's a kind of a Thai way of approach," explained Dej-Udom Krairit, president of the Lawyers Council of Thailand; "even though you are empowered but at least you are going to discuss with the current administration on how to proceed. Even though the Election Committee [Commission] has the authority but they still need cooperation from the government agencies around the country."

The commission had been seeking talks with Yingluck, but instead the government arranged a meeting of political parties that endorsed the February 2 polling date. Anti-government protesters prevented candidate registration in 28 districts, and another 22 districts have only one candidate.

The anti-government protests are calling for Yingluck's government to resign and the polling date delayed until political reforms are in place through a non-elected council. Protest leaders say the reforms are necessary to bring an end to rampant vote buying and corruption.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist and former government spokesman under the Democrat Party, says postponing the February 2 poll would allow for negotiations.

"Of course the election should be postponed," he agreed. "Postponing the election with the intention to renegotiate a political solution so to avoid walking into a more complicated situation. The court rules the Election Commission can share, can mandate to push for the decree you may have another way out led by election commission."

The governing Pheu Thai Party says it is pressing ahead with the February poll despite a boycott by the opposition Democrat Party. The ruling party says the election is a key step toward resolving current political tensions.

Pro-government red shirt supporters are vowing to stage rallies in provincial areas to support the February 2 poll. A university poll Friday found widespread support for the election.

Supavud Saicheua, a senior economist at Phatra Securities, says the court decision has failed to clear political uncertainties.

"If the court allows the election commission to change the election date and I don't know when a government can be formed or even if the Pheu Thai government will be toppled and the Red Shirts come out, then it's a whole different ball game and a great deal of uncertainty will prevail," Supavud said.

The crisis was triggered by a government blanket amnesty bill, later voted down, seen as favoring the return of Yingluck's older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is living in exile and facing jail for corruption. Other members of the Yingluck cabinet were also covered by the bill.

Protesters claim Thaksin exerts excessive influence over the government. But the governing party is also favored to return to power if the February 2 polls proceed.