26 January 2014

“There will be violence...”

Democracy Monument

Suthep Thaugsuban’s ‘Bangkok Shutdown’ began on 13th January, when his protesters blocked seven major intersections around the city in a campaign against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Tens of thousands of protesters took part on the first day, though fewer than the estimated 100,000 who joined his anti-amnesty protests last year.

By the second day of the shutdown, however, the crowds were noticeably reduced, and they have been dwindling ever since. There has been no attempt, by either the police or the army, to disperse the protesters, though the government declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on Wednesday.

An election has been scheduled for 2nd February, though it is being boycotted by the Democrats. Advanced voting began today, though Suthep’s protesters obstructed polling stations around the country. The protesters were so disruptive that they succeeded in closing all fifty polling stations in Bangkok. The leader of one faction of protesters, Suthin Taratin, was shot in the head and killed after he closed one of the city’s polling stations.

The success of the election depends on the co-operation of the Election Commission of Thailand, though the ECT appeared to acquiesce to the protesters. In an interview with The New York Times, ECT spokesman Somchai Srisutthiyakorn advocated an election postponement: “I am afraid that if the election goes ahead, there will be violence and it may lead to a coup”. In the past, the ECT’s competence and impartiality have also been questioned: its members were jailed following their mismanagement of the 2006 election, and People Power Party MP Yongyuth Tiyaphairat was disqualified after the ECT had hastily endorsed him.

The Election Commission petitioned the Constitutional Court, asking it to determine who, if anyone, could legally delay the election. The court’s ruling did little to clarify the situation, however. The judges announced that it was possible to delay the election within the bounds of the constitution, though they did not adjudicate on who had the authority to authorise such a delay. Instead, they called on the government and the Election Commission to negotiate and reach a mutual understanding. A meeting between the government and the ECT has been called for 28th January, in an attempt to end the current stalemate.

In its judgement on Friday, the Constitutional Court argued that an election delay is legally possible because the constitution does not directly forbid it. However, article 108 says that an election must be held within forty-five to sixty days of the dissolution of parliament; it does not explicitly rule out a delay, because the sixty-day deadline does not require further clarification. There are provisions to postpone voting and vote-counting in cases of emergency, according to articles 78 and 85 respectively, though these apply only to individual polling stations, not to an entire election.

The court cited 2006 as a precedent for a delay, though this seems to be a misinterpretation of the 2006 election. An election was held on 2nd April 2006 (also boycotted by the Democrats), though it was later nullified by the court. A second election was then scheduled for 15th October 2006, though it was prevented by a coup. Thus, the 2006 election was not delayed; it took place as planned, but was later declared void and rescheduled. It does not, therefore, provide an adequate precedent or justification for a delay this year.

The Constitutional Court has a history of ruling against parties affiliated with former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. It dissolved Thai Rak Thai though exonerated the Democrats, it disqualified Samak Sundaravej for hosting a TV cookery show, and it dissolved the People Power Party to placate the yellow-shirt protesters.

More recently, the court prevented the government from amending articles 117 (restoring an elected Senate) and 190 (authorising international agreements) of the constitution. Last week, the Election Commission rejected the government’s request to borrow the money required to fulfill its commitment to rice farmers. With parliament dissolved, power currently lies with these two unelected bodies whose neutrality is in question yet who have the authority to over-rule government policy.

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