Political crisis deepens as Thai court annuls election

Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled on Friday to nullify the country’s February 2 election. The decision is a flagrant attack on democratic rights, designed to further destabilise the fragile Puea Thai Party government and bring the country a step closer to a judicial coup.

There have been no allegations of ballot tampering or other illegal actions by the government. Rather, the court asserted that the poll was unconstitutional because voting did not occur in 28 constituencies where candidate registration was prevented by protests led by the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). The Election Commission (EC), which sympathises with the PDRC, refused to organise alternative registration venues and publicly called for voting to be delayed.

It is doubtful whether a new election will be held. The EC stated that organising it would take at least three months. “If the situation is still intense,” EC president Supachai Somcharoen told the Associated Press, “then we should not hold the election because it will be a waste of people’s tax money.”

Meanwhile the government remains in caretaker mode, with limited powers to raise funds and pass legislation. Earlier this month the Constitutional Court sided with the opposition Democrat Party by ruling that the government’s moves to borrow 2 trillion baht ($US62 billion) for high-speed rail and other transport infrastructure was unconstitutional.

The Puea Thai Party undoubtedly won last month’s election by a landslide, as it did in 2011. The Democrats, who boycotted the poll, have not won an election in more than two decades.

The election was called in December by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in an attempt to shore up her rule, after the Democrats resigned from parliament en masse to support the PDRC’s campaign. Since November the PDRC has organised several protests and blockades of government buildings and major intersections in Bangkok. It wants the government to be replaced by an unelected “people’s council,” which would essentially be a front for military rule.

In a speech to supporters on Thursday, PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban declared: “If the court rules the election void, don’t even dream that there will be another election. If a new election date is declared, then we’ll take care of every province and the election won’t be successful again.” Following the court’s ruling he vowed to stage “our biggest rally ever” in the capital on Saturday.

The PDRC and Democrats represent sections of the ruling elite—the military, the monarchy and much of the state bureaucracy—who supported the 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s billionaire brother. The PDRC’s predecessor, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, helped prepare the coup by exploiting popular anger over Thaksin’s policies, including the extra-judicial murder of about 3,000 people in his “war on drugs,” and the privatisation of state-owned assets.

The Shinawatras had alienated Thailand’s traditional elites by implementing limited reforms, including a rice buying scheme for farmers and cheap healthcare, which won Puea Thai a base of support in the country’s rural north. Thaksin’s efforts to further open the economy to foreign investment also cut across vested business interests and existing networks of patronage.

The Constitution Court has a long record of anti-democratic decisions favouring the Shinawatras’ rivals. The court was created by the military junta that took power in 2006 and some of its judges helped to draft the 2007 constitution. It banned Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party in 2007 and threw out the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party government in 2008 on trumped up charges of electoral fraud.

It is now seeking to repeat this operation and install another dictatorship, in collaboration with the opposition and other judicial bodies.

Last year the court struck down the government’s amendment to make the Senate a fully-elected body. In January the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) accused 308 lawmakers who supported the amendment of violating the 2007 constitution, which made almost half the Senate appointed by a committee controlled by senior judicial bodies.

On Thursday, the NACC announced that it would recommend the Senate impeach House Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranont for his role in attempting to change the law.

The NACC has also charged Yingluck with neglecting her duty by failing to prevent losses and corruption linked to the rice subsidy scheme. It has ordered her to defend the charges by March 31. If found guilty, Yingluck could also be impeached and banned from politics.

While the armed forces claim to be “neutral,” Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha clearly sympathises with the opposition and has repeatedly refused to rule out leading a military coup. The Bangkok Post quoted an army source on Saturday who said that General Paiboon Kumchaya, who is in the running to replace Prayuth when he retires in September, is “popular” with the PDRC and “has had a role in some classified missions connected to the protest.”

The army has stationed 5,500 soldiers at 176 checkpoints throughout Bangkok, on the pretext of protecting protests from violence. Heavily armed members of the Navy and Army have been arrested at protest sites, apparently working for the PDRC as security guards. The PDRC employs more than 2,200 guards.

Twenty-three people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes between protesters and police, as well as attacks on protests by unidentified men with grenades and firearms. The PDRC has blamed the attacks on the government, but it has far more to gain that the government by generating chaos in order to justify military intervention.

Last week police arrested a man who confessed to being paid by the PDRC to open fire on pro-government Red Shirt protesters the day before the election at Lak Si. Red Shirt leaders claim that soldiers watched and did nothing during the attack, which injured seven people and left one man paralysed.

The pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) organised a rally of 10,000 Red Shirts in South Pattaya, Chon Buri, on Saturday to denounce the annulment of the election. The UDD has announced “nationwide” protests on April 5, but it is unclear if this includes Bangkok. So far the UDD has avoided mobilising its supporters, drawn from the urban and rural poor, to confront the PDRC in the capital.

The protracted political deadlock continues to exacerbate Thailand’s economic crisis. Last week the Bank of Thailand cut its growth forecast for 2014 to 2.7 percent—compared to 4.8 percent forecast last October. According to the Bangkok Post, Thai Chamber of Commerce chairman Isara Vongkusolkit went further, predicting “flat growth or even a 2 percent contraction if serious clashes occur.”

The government has sought to appeal to big business and the military to support its re-election as the best means to proceed with attacks on the living standards of the working class. But with no end in sight for the country’s political crisis, many local and foreign capitalists would undoubtedly back a coup to restore order, scrap subsidies and implement austerity measures.

The US government, which backed the 2006 coup, has made no public statement on the annulment of the election. Washington is in close contact with the Thai military, which it considers an important ally in the US military build-up against China. Last month 9,000 US troops trained alongside 4,000 Thai soldiers in Exercise Cobra Gold, the largest multinational training exercise in South East Asia.