Print options

February 04, 2014

Thai Opposition Challenges 'Unconstitutional' Election

by Barry Newhouse

Thailand's opposition is moving ahead with legal challenges to Sunday's election, which failed to resolve a months-long political standoff.

The opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted the polls, asked the Constitutional Court on Tuesday to disband the ruling Pheu Thai party.

A petition filed by the Democrats says the government tried to "grab power through unconstitutional means" by holding the early elections.

A second submission says the voting should not have been held during the state of emergency imposed last month to deal with pre-election violence.

Thai election authorities are still counting ballots from Sunday’s vote, but whatever the result, the election alone will not break the political deadlock that has gripped the country since November.
 
Parliament needs 95 percent of seats to be filled in order to reach a quorum and elect a prime minister. However, protesters prevented any candidates from registering in some constituencies and blocked voting in enough others to deny the quorum. Election officials have suggested they cannot schedule by-elections to fill the empty seats until the protests end.
 
In Bangkok, the hub of the anti-government movement, the number of protesters participating in daily rallies has decreased, but they still march at will throughout the city and occupy government ministries. Despite tough talk from the police and government, no protest leaders have been arrested.
 
As the standoff continues, many observers believe that legal challenges lodged by the government’s opponents could break the impasse by unseating the caretaker government and politically crippling the ruling Pheu Thai party, which is backed by controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
 
Thai courts ruled against Thaksin-allied parties in 2006 and 2008, driving them from power until they won elections to return. Another court decision against a Thaksin-allied party could lead to a backlash from supporters, who are likely to view the decision as unjust.
 
One or more of the following scenarios could come to pass in the coming weeks. 
 
Courts invalidate the election
 
The opposition Democrat Party has said it will challenge the legitimacy of Sunday’s election, arguing that it was an attempt to grab power through unconstitutional means. They are also challenging the government’s declared state of emergency ahead of the vote, saying it meant the election could not be held under normal circumstances.
 
The Constitutional Court could rule against Yingluck, invalidate the election and order a new one. However, there is no guarantee that a new vote would end protests, especially if the opposition Democrat Party continues to refuse to participate in the polls.
 
In November, the Constitutional Court ruled that an attempt by the ruling party to have the entire Senate directly elected was in fact an attempt to “overthrow” the country’s democratic system. The court is now considering pressing charges against 308 former lawmakers allegedly involved in that decision. Most of the accused are from the ruling Pheu Thai party.
 
The Constitutional Court decisions could end up disbanding the ruling Pheu Thai party, a fate shared by previous Thaksin-backed political parties.
 
Corruption charges cripple ruling party
 
Government opponents accuse the ruling party of rampant corruption, and highlight a controversial rice-buying scheme as a prime example. Yingluck campaigned on the plan, which pays farmers above market rates for rice, but the IMF and other economists have said it is costing billions of dollars. In January, the National Anti-Corruption Commission said it was investigating the prime minister and more than a dozen other officials in the rice scheme. Those found guilty could be banned from politics for five years.
 
Escalating violence sparks military intervention
 
Thailand’s military has refused to take sides in the current standoff. Senior generals are widely believed to sympathize with royalist opponents of Pheu Thai, and the military staged a coup against a Thaksin-led government in 2006. Despite its claims of neutrality, the military’s refusal to protect government buildings from protesters has undermined the government’s authority. The army has dismissed the possibility of a coup, but if violence escalates, the military could step in.
 
Government supporters fight back
 
Despite the protests in Bangkok, the ruling Pheu Thai party remains popular in much of northern Thailand. The party’s supporters have largely heeded calls by their leaders to stay away from the anti-government protests in Bangkok because violent clashes could lead to military intervention. However, if the courts or the military moves against the caretaker government, party supporters have vowed to come off the sidelines and defend their political leaders.
 
Elections held despite protests, new government takes over
 
Prime Minister Yingluck has vowed to let the ballot box determine the country’s political future, and wants by-elections to fill the missing seats in the next six months. If authorities are able to hold polls despite ongoing protests and reach the 95 percent quorum, the government can elect a prime minister and work on consolidating power against its opponents.