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Election Commission caught in a catch-22 situation

Farmers protest in Phichit on Tuesday.

Farmers protest in Phichit on Tuesday.

The farmers are out in many provinces, protesting that the government has not paid for their crops at the prices guaranteed under the rice-pledging policy.

This time around, the caretaker government under Premier Yingluck Shinawatra can't say it has been politically exploited by the protesters demanding that the premier quit and the February 2 election be postponed until a broad-ranging reform agenda is agreed.

The farmers are suggesting that the government has failed to keep its word. Somehow, the commerce and finance ministers have given the impression that the "cheques are in the mail" for the angry farmers. But that's not the case. New loans will have to be made to meet the payment deadlines. But then, under the Constitution, a caretaker government can't take certain actions without the approval of the Election Commission (EC).

It may turn out to be a catch-22 situation for the government.

For one thing, problems related to the huge rice stockpile as a result of this highly controversial policy are now thrust upon the EC which, under the charter, has to approve any action of a caretaker government that involves budget spending off the normal budgetary plan.

The Commerce Ministry is now asking the EC to determine whether it is legal to sell rice from this stockpile.

The Finance Ministry also wants to play it safe, despite its earlier tough statements that it had the money to pay farmers for their last crops.

Now, the Finance Ministry is also consulting the EC on whether it can legally borrow more money to pay for the latest crops, bought under the 2013/14 pledging scheme.

The protesting farmers don't want to hear these "legalistic excuses" from the authorities. They simply want to know when the payments will be made. How the necessary funds are made available is the responsibility of those in power.

The EC has found itself in an unenviable position on many counts - all of which are unprecedented. A decision one way or the other is bound to draw screams from one of the contesting factions.

The rice-pledging scheme is one new dilemma for the five-member election panel. Critics say it's a populist policy that is bankrupting the government's coffers. It has also been cited as a politically motivated scheme aimed at winning votes for the ruling party. If it is interpreted along these lines, the EC would have to ask the caretaker government to halt the plan and wait for the new government after the election to decide on how to proceed with the expensive exercise.

But then, the EC has to consider the farmers' plight. They can't be blamed for demanding that the caretaker government live up to its promise, because that was the pledge upon which they had devoted their time, money and energy to produce the new rice crop. They could legitimately argue that political turmoil should not undermine their livelihood.

The EC is also caught between the horns of a dilemma over whether to allow the finance ministry to make new loans to meet its financial obligations to the farmers. It's a politically sensitive issue. Could this be seen as a campaign ploy by the ruling party? Would this be seen as an "unfair advantage" for the caretaker government in a pre-election decision?

Under normal circumstances, the EC could come up with a safe decision by concluding that since the election is less than a month away, any decision on this issue should be made by the new government.

But then, there is no guarantee that the election will actually take place. And even if the ballot casting does happen, there is no assurance that a new parliament will be convened. EC commissioners have admitted they aren't even sure whether the polls will result in at least 95 per cent of the total number of MPs being able to be elected. Without that quorum, the chances of appointing a new prime minister and forming a new Cabinet are very much up in the air.

That's the catch-22 for the EC: A situation where one thing must happen in order to cause another thing to happen. But because the first thing does not happen, the second thing cannot happen.

Worse, nobody knows what will happen in the next few days.


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