Thailand: Time to stick to poll plan

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Activist and university students gather to demand the first election in Thailand since the military seized power in a 2014 coup to be held on February 24 this year in Bangkok, Thailand January 6, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

With numerous general election promises given and then broken by the military regime since 2015, Thailand cannot afford to abort the February 24 poll plan. More delays to the country’s return to democratic rule, as suggested by Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam on Thursday, will deal heavy blows to both the country’s political climate and investment sentiment.

After the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) announced the possibility of the February 24 poll date at its meeting with political parties on December 7, people began to believe that this time the promise was real. The NCPO’s political ban was lifted and the organic law on the election of MPs also took effect on December 11.

Nevertheless, many remained anxious about a possible delay, waiting patiently for the government to issue a royal decree calling for the election to enable the Election Commission (EC) to officially set the date. However, their fears appeared to be confirmed when the EC last month hinted that it might need more time for ballot paper printing, meaning another delay, amid speculation that such a postponement would only help newly established pro-regime political parties get better prepared for the contest.

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Then, Mr Wissanu’s remark this week, following his meeting with the EC, signalled another bump may lie on the road to democracy. A one-month delay would be helpful to avoid having poll-related activities overlap with the coronation ceremony of His Majesty the King, scheduled for May 4-6, he said.

This possible postponement prompted condemnation from Thai Twitter users. The associated hashtag became the most popular on Thai Twitter on Thursday. Additionally, in response to the news, analysts predicted negative investment sentiment in the country’s capital markets. True, waiting for one more month will not end the country’s prospects of returning to democracy. But the growing anxiety and anger about the delay are not caused by anyone being impatient, they lie in the public’s increasing distrust of the regime’s promises.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is also the head of the NCPO, has repeatedly delivered promises of an election only to break them later. Several times, the regime has cited political chaos and national security as reasons for delaying the poll. This time, Mr Wissanu said the delay could help avoid calendar clashes between post-poll activities, such as the selection of a prime minister and senators, and the coronation including the preliminary preparations and activities to celebrate the occasion which will take place two weeks before and two weeks after the ceremony.

Calendar shifting is, in fact, a small matter that could and should have easily been fixed by the EC and the government without any difficulty at all. It simply needed their commitment to return democratic rule to the country within the previously promised time frame. The EC itself could have pledged to endorse the poll result as early as possible to avoid the overlap.

As things now stand, the public is surely doubtful whether the regime is committed to holding the poll at all.

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The NCPO has falsely depicted elections as an activity that could pose obstacles to peace, normalcy or security. However, the very act of postponing the poll will in itself trigger a public backlash and further erode confidence in the country’s political stability. Thailand should not prove to the world that it is unwilling to return to democracy. The regime and the EC must stick to the February 24 poll date.

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