Thailand’s Acting Leader Says Vote Should Come Before Reform

Thailand’s acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan said holding an election scheduled for July 20 is the only way to resolve the nation’s political deadlock, and reforms should be implemented by a new government.

“Political reforms are a good thing, and we need to modernize the country,” Niwattumrong said yesterday in a briefing for foreign media on the outskirts of Bangkok. “But we can’t stop the election. We should have the election first and a new government can implement reforms.”

Niwattumrong, who was named interim leader last week after a court ruling forced Yingluck Shinawatra from office, is facing calls from protesters to stand aside and allow a “people’s council” to be installed to rewrite electoral rules before a new vote. The move is illegal and may spark violence, he said.

“There is no law that allows the proposal for an unelected prime minister to be chosen by the Senate,” he said. “I have strong confidence that the election will be held. The election date can be flexible, but it will not be far from the planned date of July 20.”

The People’s Democratic Reform Committee, led by former opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban, has staged a six-month street campaign targeting allies of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother who was deposed in a 2006 coup. They accuse the Shinawatras of crony capitalism and using populist policies to secure the support of rural voters, and want election rules changed to ensure a proxy for the family can’t return to power.

Election Unlikely

“At some stage we will need to get to a position when there is an election in Thailand but at the moment an election without political disruption and protests seems very unlikely,” Jon Grevatt, IHS Jane’s Asia-Pacific industry analyst, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television today.

The anti-government group moved its main protest base yesterday from Lumpini Park in central Bangkok to an area close to the prime minister’s office compound at Government House. The caretaker administration vacated Government House months ago to avoid demonstrators and has worked from a back-up location on the city’s outskirts.

Red Shirts

A pro-government group known as the Red Shirts began gathering close to Bangkok at the weekend to protest last week’s ruling by the Constitutional Court that Yingluck abused her power by reassigning a security chief to benefit a relative, raising concern that the two groups may clash. The pro-Thaksin Red Shirts occupied Bangkok’s main shopping district for a month in 2010, a protest that culminated in a military crackdown overseen by Suthep that left more than 90 people dead.

“We ask people to leave protest sites and warn your children and family members to stay away for their own safety,” Tarit Pengdit, the director-general of the Department of Special Investigation, said May 11, adding that security officials were preparing to arrest Suthep and other protest leaders seeking to install an appointed prime minister.

“If the anti-government protesters continue to provoke and resort to political violence, we could see some sort of clash,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University and author of “Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and His Foreign Policy,” said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Economic Risk

The stalemate remains the biggest risk to the economy, which expanded 2.9 percent last year, central bank Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul said May 8. The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said last week the economy may contract in the first half, after releasing data that showed consumer confidence slipped for a 13th straight month in April.

Thailand’s benchmark SET Index of stocks fell for a fifth day, declining 0.2 percent to 1,375.14, the lowest close since March 28. The baht was little changed at 32.612 per dollar and earlier reached 32.663, the weakest level in about 10 weeks.

At least 25 people have been killed in political violence since late November, and government supporters are concerned that fresh clashes may prompt the military to stage a coup. Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha said at the weekend that the deadlock must be solved through legal means.

The military is waiting to see what happens, while military coup is unlikely, Grevatt said.

Wide Division

“They are very determined to stay morally above this political crisis and the army doesn’t want to be seen to take sides in light of the very wide political division in the country,” he said.

The military is now working with the government’s Center for Maintaining Peace and Order unit to guard key areas and provide safety for citizens, Winthai Suvaree, the deputy army spokesman, told reporters yesterday.

Thailand, a constitutional monarchy since 1932, has seen nine coups and more than 20 prime ministers since 1946, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, assumed the throne. The monarch, whose portrait is hung in most homes and shops, was admitted to the hospital in September 2009, according to the Royal Household Bureau. The king moved in August last year to the Klai Kangwon Palace in the Hua Hin district of Prachuap Khiri Khan province.

Suthep’s Deadline

Suthep set yesterday as a deadline for lawmakers to solve the crisis, or his supporters would resolve it themselves, he said. He didn’t comment on the deadline yesterday. Suthep faces charges of sedition and treason linked to the latest protest, and murder charges stemming from his time as deputy premier in 2010, when he oversaw a military crackdown on Thaksin supporters.

Suthep’s demand to install a Cabinet “is unlawful and offends the king’s power,” the DSI’s Tarit said, adding that security officials have “enough information to indicate that there will be violence if he goes ahead with the plan.”

The government has had limited powers since December, when Yingluck dissolved parliament to appease protesters. A February poll was invalidated by a court on the grounds the vote didn’t take place across the country on the same day, something that wasn’t possible because protesters blocked voting in some areas.

The government and the Election Commission have agreed to a new poll on July 20, though a decree has yet to be submitted for royal approval. The commission plans to discuss preparations for the vote with the government, and may provide clarity on concerns that the acting premier doesn’t have the authority to seek royal endorsement for the election, Commissioner Somchai Srisuttiyakorn said yesterday.

Democrat Boycott

The commission wants to amend the draft election law to give it the power to postpone the poll in the event of unrest, Somchai said.

The Democrat Party has threatened to boycott that vote, as it did in February. Thaksin-allied parties have won the past five polls, while the Democrats, haven’t won a vote in more than two decades.

“There is no incentive for them to go into the elections knowing that they would be losing in the electoral game once again, and that could pave the way for Thaksin’s proxy to return to politics,” Kyoto University’s Pavin said. “Even if there is an election, there would be some sort of obstacle as we saw in February.”

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