Thailand Constitutional Court says polls can be delayed

Thai anti-government protesters wave national flags as they parade during a rally in Bangkok on 24 January 2014 Protesters want Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down

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Thailand's Constitutional Court has ruled that polls scheduled for 2 February can be legally postponed.

But it said any postponement must have the agreement of the election commission and the prime minister.

The election commission says polls should be delayed because of political turmoil. The government insists elections should go ahead as planned.

A state of emergency is in place in Thailand as protesters call for PM Yingluck Shinawatra to step down.

Thai Deputy PM Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan: "Election in parallel with reform"

Protesters, who started their campaign in November, want to install an unelected "people's council" to run the country until the political system is changed.

They say Ms Yingluck's government is being influenced by her brother, exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

At least nine people have died since the wave of protests started last year.

Both the pro-government "red shirt" activists and the anti-government protesters have blamed each other for outbreaks of violence.

The electoral commission and the main opposition party, the Democrats, have called on the government to delay the polls, saying that the current unrest makes conducting free and fair elections too difficult.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (C) leaves the Royal Thai Air Force building in Bangkok on 23 January  2014 Ms Yingluck's party enjoys significant support from rural voters

The government, however, has said there was no legal basis to delay because the constitution provides that there must be an election 45-60 days after parliament is dissolved.

"The Constitutional Court weighed in with its decision that the Election Commission and the Government must decide together on the delay. "

State of emergency

Analysis

In most politically divided countries, an election is an opportunity for the two sides to air their arguments and compete for power. In Thailand, just holding an election has become the point of contention.

The Bangkok-based anti-government protest movement, calling itself the People's Democratic Reform Committee, wants elections postponed for years while the political system is overhauled by an appointed council of "good people". The main opposition party, the Democrats, have said they are boycotting next month's election. The government insists it is the only legal way forward after it dissolved parliament in December.

Enter Thailand's officially neutral institutions, the election commission, charged with organising the poll, and the Constitutional Court. The five-member commission has already asked for a delay, on the grounds that a fair election is too difficult in the current turmoil. Now the court has ruled that the prime minister and the commission must make a joint decision on whether the poll goes ahead.

The government's supporters believe neither institution is impartial. All Thailand's top courts have a history of controversial verdicts against parties led by PM Yingluck Shinawatra's family. At least one of the election commissioners is openly sympathetic to the protesters. So this ruling will be viewed by the government's side as yet another blow to their democratic aspirations by the establishment. They believe the protest movement could never have occupied central Bangkok for so long with powerful backers in the military and the bureaucracy.

Even if they can agree to postpone the election before the end of next week, what then? The political paralysis would continue, and a new vote, required within four months, might face the same obstacles.

But it is by no means clear whether the election commission can persuade the government to agree with its plans.

"We will ask to meet with the prime minister and her government on Monday to discuss a new election date," election commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn told Reuters news agency.

But he added that if the government did not agree to a postponement, "then the election would go ahead".

Ms Yingluck's Pheu Thai party commands significant support, especially with rural voters, and is seen as likely to win the polls.

The opposition, which resigned from parliament in December, has said it would boycott the elections.

On Tuesday, the government imposed a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and three surrounding provinces. The decree gives the government the power to control crowds and censor media, but its enforcement has remained unclear.

Protests started after Thailand's lower house passed a controversial amnesty bill which critics said could allow former PM Thaksin Shinawatra to return without serving time in jail.

Pro-government supporters have mostly stayed away from the latest protests but observers fear further violence if they decide to take to the streets.

Meanwhile, Ms Yingluck is also being investigated by Thailand's anti-corruption body in connection with a controversial government rice subsidy scheme - a move that could potentially force her from politics.

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