09 January 2014

“That door is neither open nor closed...”

Democracy Monument

On 21st December last year, the Democrat party confirmed that it will boycott the upcoming general election, scheduled for 2nd February. Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said: “The Thai people have lost their faith in the democratic system.” More accurately, perhaps, the Thai people have lost their faith in the Democrats. The party has lost the last five elections, though rather than revamping their policies or refreshing their leadership, they chose to abandon parliamentary democracy altogether, resigning from parliament en masse and joining Suthep Thaugsuban’s street protests.

The Democrat election boycott could have dramatic consequences. The party previously boycotted the 2006 election, and that election was subsequently invalidated. The consequent power vacuum ultimately led to a coup later that year.

On 28th December, General Prayut Chan-o-cha was asked to comment on persistent rumours of another military coup, and his answer was highly ambiguous. He said: “That door is neither open nor closed. Everything depends on the situation”, an extraordinary public admission and a sign of the army’s continued sense of impunity.

Prayut was speaking after violent protests in Bangkok on Boxing Day, during which a police officer was shot and killed. Protesters led by Suthep were blocking access to the stadium where candidates were registering for the election. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrators, as they had in December when Suthep’s supporters occupied Government House and other state buildings.

Suthep has announced another protest scheduled for next week, claiming that he will ‘shut down Bangkok’ on 13th January by blocking major intersections surrounding the city centre. He also set another of his many deadlines, issuing an ultimatum for Yingluck Shinawatra to resign as PM before 15th January. 

After the protests, Election Commission member Somchai Srisutthiyakorn called on the government to postpone the election. He even hinted that some commissioners might resign in order to delay it. However, Pheu Thai leader Charupong Ruangsuwan insisted that the election would go ahead, and instructed the Election Commission to do its duty by facilitating, rather than obstructing, the election.

Because of the chaos surrounding the registration process, candidates in only 472 constituencies were able to register before the deadline. At least 475 MPs, from a total of 500, are required to form a new government; thus, even if the election were to go ahead, it would be open to legal challenges as there are not enough candidates to form a quorum.

In an unfortunate echo of 2006 and 2008, the government is facing pressure not only from protesters but also from the Constitutional Court. The court ruled in November 2013 that Pheu Thai’s bill to amend article 117 of the constitution, restoring a fully-elected Senate, was unconstitutional. Yesterday, the court ruled that another attempt to amend the charter (article 190, relating to the signing of international agreements) was also unlawful. (The constitution was drafted by the military in 2007; Abhisit also proposed amending article 190 when he was in office in 2010.)

On 7th January, the National Anti-Corruption Commission announced that it will begin impeachment proceedings against 308 of the MPs who voted to amend article 117. Yingluck herself also faces potential NACC impeachment proceedings relating to her rice subsidy policy. The Constitutional Court is also currently investigating Pheu Thai’s proposed high-speed rail scheme, and its judges yesterday declared that the project was unnecessary and contravened the King’s ‘sufficiency economy’ philosophy.

The bill authorising the loan for the high-speed rail project had already been passed by both houses of parliament, though it is now being vetoed by the Constitutional Court. With the court over-ruling government policies, and the NACC planning to impeach most Pheu Thai MPs, are we seeing the beginnings of another judicial coup, as occurred in 2008?

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