By KAS CHANWANPEN
Suspicion is widespread that discussions about delaying the election tentatively scheduled for February 24 do not stem entirely from worries of a knock-on effect on the enthronement of the King.
With the junta’s history of repeatedly breaking its promise to allow an election, critics are sensing another “ploy” to try and cling to power or gain advantage over other parties ahead of the polls.
It could be, some say, that the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party is unprepared for the contest as scheduled, so the regime wants to delay it for another month.
Stithorn Thananithichot, a political scientist at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, said he did not think the delay would make much difference in terms of campaign strategies or policies. He advised voters to be on alert for any changes made among the MP candidates.
If Phalang Pracharat is in fact benefiting from a delay, it could be that it lured former MPs from other parties last month and must now wait for their membership to become valid so that they are eligible to run, Stithorn said.
The Constitution requires MP candidates to have been members of their parties for at least 90 days before applying to contest an election.
There is no evidence that the pro-junta party coaxed more former MPs away from other parties than it had two months ago, Stithorn said, but if it did, an election delay would prove helpful.
He speculated that the postponement might also be premised on the junta seeking to steer voter attention away from a slew of scandals that surfaced late last year. These included a controversial election fundraiser, a populist “New Year gift” programme and a deputy premier’s array of luxury wristwatches.
If that were the case, Stithorn said, the effort was unlikely to succeed.
“Delaying the election wouldn’t really ensure that voters forget all about the scandals or that the junta’s image would improve,” he said. “Other parties could just dig it up again at any time during the campaign.”
And if the junta’s festive-season cash handout to low-income earners was really an attempt to win votes, any voter goodwill it inspired towards Phalang Pracharat might have worn off by the time the re-scheduled election takes place, Stithorn added.
He thus believes the delay will do the regime no good as it seeks to retain power after the election.
Nor does the problem stop there, he said. An unreliable election timetable is bound to affect voter confidence.
“A lot of people are unsure about whether the election will be free and fair,” Stithorn said. “All these moves to alter the schedule just seem to confirm their perceptions.”
Some voters, as a result, might decide to stay home on election day, he said.
“When they’re not sure if they can trust the process, they might just forsake their right to vote. They won’t feel their vote matters if the election is fraudulent.”
However, he noted that a recent poll by King Prajadhipok’s Institute found enthusiasm about the election rising in the Northeast. Citizens expressed hope that their participation would ensure the desired outcome and prevent poll fraud.
Another concern about the delay involves the constitutionality of the election.
Right now two other possible dates are on the table. It has been reported that the Election Commission prefers March 10 if February 24 is not suitable, while the government has suggested March 24 as the perfect date to avoid any conflict with the coronation.
The debate now centres on the constitutional requirement that the election be “completed” within 150 days of the MP-election law coming into effect with its publication in the Royal Gazette. The question is whether it is the casting of ballots that must be completed – or the lengthier process that ends with the formal announcement of the results.
If it were the latter, said political scientist Chamnan Chanruang, balloting on March 24 would leave insufficient time to announce the results within 150 days and the election could be declared unconstitutional and voided. Stithorn and Chamnan agreed that March 10 would be the safer choice if the election cannot go ahead on February 24.
Hundreds of protesters in Bangkok yesterday demonstrated against talk of postponing the poll. They gathered on the skywalk around Victory Monument holding banners that read “No Delay”.
Observers have already begun voicing concern that any foul play aimed at upending the election could give rise to more street protests, which the junta has pledged to control.