By Nontarat Phaicharoen
Thailand’s long awaited and repeatedly postponed general election under junta rule may be delayed yet again after the interior ministry confirmed a halt to preparations for polls expected on Feb. 24, saying it was still waiting for a voting date to be made official.
In the face of the latest potential delay, groups of pro-democracy protestors took to the streets of Bangkok on Tuesday to demand that the election take place on the last Sunday in February. The demonstration occurred a day after a memo from the ministry instructing registration offices in the provinces to stop poll-related activities was leaked to the media.
“The internal letter relates to the initial poll date, but when the royal decree did not come out yet, therefore the Election Commission asked us to end or delay the preparation,” Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda told reporters Tuesday. “There must be a clear poll date first.”
In confirming the memo’s leak, he was referring to a decree authorizing a poll date that must be signed by Thailand’s king and then published in the Royal Gazette before the commission can make the date official.
“It is not a big deal. There will – one hundred percent – be an election. The Election Commission is the one that has the final call on whether it is postponed or delayed,” Anupong said.
Last September, the National Assembly passed laws that set early May 2019 as a deadline for the first national polls since a military coup nearly five years ago, with senior junta leaders talking about the last Sunday in February as a tentative voting date.
The Election Commission was expected to announce the date in the first week of the new year, according to a senior official there, but then the royal palace announced on Jan. 1 that the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn would take place May 4-6.
More than a week later, the commission has still not announced a poll-date because the Royal Gazette has not yet published the monarch’s signed decree on this.
The Election Commission needs the royal decree to be in effect and is required to announce a date for voting within 150 days of the decree’s publication in the gazette, said Wissanu Krea-ngam, deputy prime minister for legal affairs.
“I expect that the poll is pushed off from Feb. 24 but that wouldn’t be too long because the junta still needs legitimacy to hold the coronation,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, told BenarNews.
‘Wait until it is announced’
Thailand’s last general election happened in July 2011, when Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister of a civilian government.
Army Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who led a coup that toppled her government in May 2014 and who then took over as prime minister, has since postponed the prospect of a general election at least five times, despite early promises to steer Thailand back on a path toward democracy.
“I would like to see the process completed the soonest. In regards with the royal decree on the election, wait until it is announced in the Royal Gazette,” the junta chief told reporters on Tuesday, referring to the polls.
When the dates for the coronation were announced last week and he was asked whether this would impact the election, Prayuth told reporters that his government was giving priority to the king’s crowning, “but things can be conducted in conjunction.”
The potential latest setback to the prospect of polls, nonetheless, has upset pro-democracy activists.
Since the junta lifted its ban on political gatherings of five or more people and allowed political parties to hold activities late last year, protestors have rallied in Bangkok at least three times to demand that polls be held on Feb. 24.
On Tuesday, some 300 demonstrators led by a group called “People Who Want Elections” gathered near the busy Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok to repeat the demand.
“The junta must clarify about the status of the royal decree. It must not interfere with the Election Commission. The junta and the EC must implement proper elections and open the parliament accordingly,” said Siriwith Seritiwit, a student activist.