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Fresh Thai election no closer despite multi-party meeting

Source: Reuters - Tue, 22 Apr 2014 11:14 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK, April 22 (Reuters) - Thailand's political impasse looked no closer to a solution on Tuesday despite a rare meeting of political parties and the Election Commission to discuss how and when a new vote should be held after a general election in February was declared void.

About 58 parties including the ruling Puea Thai Party met in Bangkok to discuss a rerun, after months of anti-government protests that have crippled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's caretaker government and the economy.

However, the main opposition Democrat Party did not attend, citing unspecified security concerns, and the parties did not settle on a date for a new election.

The failure of the talks highlights the political division between the mostly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and the largely middle- and upper-class backers of the royalist establishment.

The confrontation has brought occasional outbreaks of violence and undermined growth in Southeast Asia's second biggest economy. Elections, won by former telecoms tycoon Thaksin or his loyalists since 2001, have failed to bring reconciliation.

The Constitutional Court nullified the Feb. 2 election, which Yingluck looked set to win, because voting was not held in 28 constituencies where anti-government protesters stopped candidates registering. The constitution says voting must take place around the country on the same day.

The Election Commission said on Tuesday a new vote could be held on July 20 at the earliest.

"Otherwise it would be too tight and we would not have time to resolve any unexpected issues," said Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, an election commissioner.

Yingluck's caretaker government has a narrow remit, with limited fiscal authority, and the failure to agree on when to hold a vote will add to her mounting problems, which include a set of legal challenges that could bring her down within weeks.

"I want elections at the earliest date possible. We have no lawmakers and therefore have nobody to solve the country's problems," Yingluck told reporters on Tuesday.

The Democrats boycotted the February vote and have remained noncommittal over whether they will take part in the next one.

BARGAINING TOOL

Thailand has been in crisis since 2006 when the military ousted then premier Thaksin in a coup.

On one side are Bangkok's middle-class, the bureaucratic establishment and residents of the south, a Democrat stronghold, who see Thaksin as a corrupt crony capitalist and threat to their interests and say he wins elections with handouts.

On the other side are the supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin, largely from the north and northeast, who say Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail term handed down in 2008 for abuse of power, was the first leader to help them.

The pro-establishment protesters, based in a Bangkok park, are demanding political reforms to end what they see as Thaksin's grip over a fragile democracy, before a new vote.

Twenty-five people have been killed and scores wounded since the protests began in November. Puea Thai accuses the protesters of trying to seize power through underhand means, abetted by the Democrats.

"Some political parties have joined hands to block the election process in order to create a power vacuum and put themselves in charge," Yingluck's party said in a statement on Monday.

Critics say the Democrats are refusing to take part because they know they will again lose to Thaksin's political machine unless the electoral system is changed.

"The Democrats are using this as a bargaining tool to increase their chance of returning to power," said Gothom Arya, a lecturer in human rights and peace studies at Mahidol University in Bangkok.

"They are afraid that if Puea Thai Party wins another election, they will remain the opposition for a long time."

(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)

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