Thailand elections 'unlikely before 2016'

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha (R) and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung review an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Hanoi on November 27, 2014.

The next general election could be delayed by a year, two top ministers said yesterday.

In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, Finance Minister Sommai Phasi said bringing back democracy any time before mid-2016 was unrealistic.

"As announced by the prime minister [General Prayut Chan-o-cha], it would take about one year. But, from my feeling, I think it may take, maybe, a year and a half," he told the British broadcaster.

Sommai said he had just last week spoken to Prayut about the feasibility of holding elections. Prayut had initially said his government hoped to hold fresh polls around October or thereabouts next year, once the drafting of the new constitution is done.

Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, who is also defence minister, echoed the same view. "If everything goes out as planned and if the constitution is ready, we think elections will be held in 2016," he said.

Meanwhile, Sommai said no date had been set for lifting martial law as "it's something that he [the Prime Minister] needs as a tool to deal with security".

Prawit said the government could deal with the fact that some groups were still opposed to the junta and its government, but it was necessary to suspend all political activities. "We will do everything as democratically as possible. We [the junta] have not suppressed anyone. We just ask people to suspend political activities and wait for us to solve problems and lay down a strong foundation for the country.

"It will only take a year. That's not too long. They can wait," he said, referring to academics calling for the martial law to be relaxed.

In a related development, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday suggested that a public referendum be held on the new constitution in order to boost its legitimacy and sustainability. He told the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) at a meeting in Parliament that the provisional charter should be amended to require a referendum on the constitution's final draft.

Charter legitimacy

He urged National Reform Council president Thienchai Kirananda or CDC chairman Borwornsak Uwanno to ask Prayut, as chief of the National Council for Peace and Order, to allow the necessary charter change.

Abhisit also said that eligible voters should be asked if they preferred a new constitution drafted by the CDC or if they were happy with the 2007 charter. He said this would motivate the drafters into writing a better charter.

In his document submitted to the CDC yesterday, Abhisit said that with majority support from voters, the new charter would gain strong legitimacy, which would make it difficult for politicians to amend it in the future.

The Army imposed martial law two days before the May 22 coup. The law bans all political gatherings, allows the detention of dissidents for up to seven days without charge and allows ordinary citizens to be tried in a military court. Prayut has been insisting that martial law is necessary.

Meanwhile, the anti-coup sentiment is still strong among some Thais, even though it has been six months since the coup. In his first visit to the Northeast, which is a stronghold of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Prayut himself witnessed protests by students.

The government has set up forums to gather students' opinions on political reform. Education Ministry permanent secretary Suthasri Wongsamarn said all students should exercise their right and attend these, adding that universities would be urged to encourage their students to participate.

She added that the ministry would not force the students, but she said those expressing political views and joining movements should also see if the location and timing of the protest are appropriate.

She also urged protesting students to think of the majority's benefits and said they should consider the end result for society rather than focusing on the means.