Analysis: Déjà vu in Thailand as court annuls elections

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 22, 2014 The Constitutional Court's ruling to annul the February 2 elections Friday rewards those that attempted to stop the polls from taking place and marks a dangerous development in the ongoing political crisis - something that we have witnessed before.

Activists have wrapped Democracy Monument in black cloth after the Constitutional Court's ruling to annul the February 2 elections. The text says "20 million [voters] + 3 < 6 [judges] RIP".

Ever since the anti-government protesters downsized their rallies and relocated to Lumphini Park earlier this month, the political battlefield has shifted its focus to the judiciary. Whether it's the crippling of the emergency decree (which has now been lifted) or the ruling against the 2 trillion Baht ($62bn) transport plan, the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has faced strong opposition and was handed a series of defeats at the hands of the courts.

On Friday, it suffered another setback:

The judges on Friday voted 6-3 to declare the Feb. 2 vote unconstitutional because elections were not held in 28 constituencies, where anti-government protesters had prevented candidates from registering. The constitution says the election must be held on the same day nationwide.

The court ordered that new elections take place.

"Thailand’s court rules elections invalid", Associated Press, March 21, 2014

The reasoning that the elections were not held on the same day is at best contentious thanks to a one-sided interpretation of the law*. Here's what fellow blogger Bangkok Pundit wrote before the ruling:

It is important to note that [Section 108 of the Constitution] doesn’t explicitly state the the election must be the same day, it is the election date must be fixed (or set) as the same date. These are slightly different things (...) if the election date is set nationwide for February 2 and then we have a natural disaster or political protests and elections in one more constituencies cannot take place, is this unconstitutional? Essentially, this will be the question considered by the Court, but then when it likely rules it was unconstitutional, the Court should make clear on specifically the extent of the problem.

"Thai court nullifies February election", Bangkok Pundit, March 21, 2014

*(Read Bangkok Pundit's in-depth analysis and legal expert Verapat Pariyawong's comment for more details.)

That is exactly what the Constitutional Court did NOT do! It did not acknowledge the circumstances that left the elections incomplete. The court didn't take into account that the Election Commission - especially commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn - has been all too vocal in its reluctance to hold an election and has also been very hesitant scheduling the catch-up voting dates; it has only held re-runs in five provinces, moving the rest to April.

But the more severe implication of the court's ruling is that it rewards the anti-democratic behavior of the anti-government protests, since it was them that blocked voting stations in Bangkok and large parts in the South on election day and disrupted the candidacy registration back in December. To add further insult to injury for the caretaker government, the court dismissed its petition to outlaw the protests back in February, effectively endorsing the antics of the main protest group and its affiliates.

While the ruling also ordered for the whole election process to start over again, no time frame has been set yet by the Election Commission - that is, if we're actually going to get there in the first place. Not only has protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban already promised to derail any near-future elections (while not saying anything against the upcoming senate elections at the end of March - a crucial tool for a potential impeachment), but the caretaker government still has to endure further legal challenges against it.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission's (NACC) filed charges against Yingluck for alleged negligence of duty in the government's disastrous rice-pledging scheme and against 308 mostly government lawmakers for their role in constitutional amendments that would have changed the make-up of the senate - both cases could force them out of office.

Yesterday's decision by the Constitutional Court is a dangerous déjà vu that mirrors the events of 2006, where under similar beleaguered circumstances the government of then-PM and Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra called for snap elections, only to be boycotted by the opposition and to be annulled by the Constitutional Court. While a new election date was set, the military coup pre-empted it and exploited the power vacuum.

With similar circumstances today and the Yingluck government facing more legal torpedoes, the judiciary might have thrown do the gauntlet to pro-government red shirt supporters, which has recently seen a change at the helm: the promotion of Jatuporn Prompan as the leader of the umbrella organization United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) signals a readiness for confrontation should the government by toppled.

That and the utter disregard by the protesters, the opposition (the Democrat Party refused to take part and many of its members are rather at the rallies) and now by the judiciary for the democratic principle of elections makes this development much more dangerous, as the political polarization is getting closer and closer to breaking point.