Thai election: No sign of early ballot

Yesterday's ruling by the Constitutional Court that annulled the February 2 general election has answered questions about the legality of the problem-plagued poll - but it has also raised new questions about when the next election will be held and whether the political stalemate can be resolved.

Election Commission (EC) chairman Supachai Somcharoen said he expected it would be at least three more months before a new election could be held. He said the election commissioners would convene a special meeting on Monday to discuss what to do next.

The court's judges voted 6-3 to void the election on the grounds that voting was not held for the entire country on the same day, which is a violation of the Constitution.

The judges advised the EC and the government to discuss issuing a Royal Decree to call for a new election. But the court said the EC should set the election date by referring to a previous Constitutional Court ruling in 2006 that also annulled a general election in that year.

In 2006, the court ruled on May 8 that the election was unconstitutional and a new round of voting was scheduled for October 15 - more than five months later.

The caretaker government has made it clear it does not want to wait as long as five months for a new vote. Sources from the ruling Pheu Thai Party said the time frame in which an election should be held was 45 to 60 days after dissolution of the House of Representatives. That means the party wants a new election to be held by no later than May 21.

But the EC is unlikely to agree to another snap election while the political situation remains volatile.

Before the previous election on February 2, the commission suggested that the government postpone the voting in the face of worsening protests and confrontation. But the government ignored it, and the result was an incomplete election.

In the election, which was boycotted by the main opposition Democrat Party, voting did not take place in 28 constituencies where candidate registration was blocked by anti-government protesters, who also forced closure of about 10 per cent of polling stations.

With the court ruling and a possible repeat of problems seen on February 2, the EC will have a larger say than the government in deciding the next election date.

There is also great mistrust between the two major parties. The opposition accuses the government of attempting to retain the status quo - in which the ruling party has influence over the bureaucracy and local administrative agencies - that allows it to win an election.

The anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has also threatened to disrupt the election again unless there is national reform before the poll.

The Democrat Party is also unlikely to join the new election if the current government remains as a caretaker administration, according to a senior party figure.

"The best way out is for Yingluck Shinawatra to resign as prime minister, to pave the way for a non-elected or neutral person to head the government and take care of the election," the source said.

The ruling party, meanwhile, has said there was a "conspiracy" against it regaining power. Key party figure Chaturon Chaisang, who is also education minister, suspected there was an attempt to get rid of the government to create a political vacuum. He said yesterday he did not expect a new election any time soon.

Legal expert Verapat Pariyawong said the verdict may lead to talks between the caretaker government and the PDRC. The latter may ask the government to stand down and Yingluck to not run in the next election in return for it not disrupting the poll. But he did not think Pheu Thai and Yingluck supporters would agree to such a deal, so the political crisis would continue.

Academic Komsarn Pokong said he did not think a new poll would be held soon as the political conflict remained tense. He called on the government to admit its mistakes and wrongdoing in order to ease the tension.

"By speeding up calls for a new election, the government will only be declaring war with its rivals. Now it seems that both sides don't want to retreat and they don't want to appear to follow the other's demands," he said.

But the private sector was optimistic yesterday that the ruling to nullify the poll would lead to a new government eventually.

Thanavath Phonvichai, director of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce's Economic Forecasting Centre, said the Constitutional Court's nullification of the election was a positive signal that a new election could be held by the third quarter.

"Thailand should be able to get a new government by the third quarter after the new election. The Thai economy, thus, should grow by 2-3 per cent," he said.

Sumeth Laomoraphorn, chief executive officer of CP Intertrade, one of the country's major rice exporters, said the private sector had high expectations that Thailand would be able to have a new election soon so that a fully authorised government could be put in place to administer the country.

He said that during the long wait for a new government, the private sector had to suspend investment and expansion plans.

"The caretaker government currently lacks full authority to manage rice stocks, but has only been able to accelerate rice sales, which caused a drop in the rice price in the world market. Under a new government, rice policy should be well managed," Sumeth said.

Recently, many local research houses downgraded forecasts for Thai GDP growth this year to below 3 per cent, mainly because of the slowdown in tourism, consumption and investment that has resulted from the prolonged political deadlock.

Some predicted that if a new government cannot be formed by the third quarter to implement the 2015 fiscal budget, starting from October, Thai gross domestic product may contract dramatically.

Fitch issued a warning to Thailand recently that it might reassess the country's credit-rating outlook, if there was no full government in place to implement a fiscal 2015 budget by August.

Previously, the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industries, and Banking said the political strife had cost the country as much as Bt120 billion (S$4.72 billion) in lost opportunities.