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One political battle ends, another - uglier one - begins

Now that the Constitutional Court has ruled the February 2 election null and void, a new election will take place. End of conflict? Problem solved?

Not really. In fact, the verdict might signal the beginning of a new round of confrontation.

In fact, a few days after the charter court handed down the 6-3 ruling to invalidate the trouble-plagued election, red-shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan announced that the pro-government movement would begin a march on April 5. The move was supposed to pre-empt any possible military coup - but it isn't clear where the march, which is supposed to start in Pattaya where the rally is being held, will end.

At about the same, Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Council (PDRC), came up with another major decision: A huge demonstration to be held nationwide will be launched on March 29, one day before the scheduled senatorial election.

No, the PDRC isn't going to disrupt the election of senators. But Suthep was unequivocal that a new general election of MPs for the lower house would face another round of protest like the one on February 2, insisting that unless the premier quit and a people's reform council is formed, then any election would be the target of the PDRC's movement.

The promise of a new election, therefore, doesn't offer any hope of a solution to the long drawn-out conflict. Things will get worse, much worse, before they get any better.

What follows after the court verdict is for the Election Commission (EC) to first determine how to go about holding the new election. It would first have to consult the caretaker government on how a new decree is to be promulgated to fix the new election date. Some EC members have already suggested that it may take two to three months before all the complicated details are worked out and a new round of ballot-casting can be held.

Then there is the question of how the various political parties view the upcoming election. There is little doubt that Pheu Thai will go for it, convinced that it could win again without much difficulty.

The Democrat Party, which boycotted the last election, is in a dilemma. Some senior members are said to be in favour of rejoining the election process, arguing that staying out for a second time could be seen as a negative exercise that could cause the party serious damage. But the party leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has been quoted as saying in public on several occasions that the main opposition party would rejoin the election process only if the caretaker government quits. That doesn't appear to be an imminent possibility.

The Democrats will have a difficult time deciding whether they should be seen to be in cahoots with the PDRC, despite the fact that the ruling Pheu Thai Party has always accused the opposition and the PDRC of operating under the same group of politicians anyway.

The relationship between PDRC leader Suthep and the Democrat Party's leadership is a tricky one. Suthep, a former secretary-general of the Democrat Party, has publicly stated that he is a free campaigner and doesn't work within the Democrat framework. Some Democrats have privately complained that Suthep has clashed quite often with party leaders on several vital strategic issues.

If the Democrats decide to boycott the election again, they could face public censure. A legal interpretation will also have to be made on whether the party's refusal to take part in the last election can be considered a "first" boycott, now that the court has ruled the ballot-casting invalid. Under the law, any party that boycotts a general election twice in a row faces being disbanded.

But even if the new election proceeds, the Pheu Thai Party still faces a number of potentially damaging obstacles. If caretaker PM Yingluck Shinawatra is indicted by the Anti-Corruption Commission for her role in the rice-pledging policy, she would have to stand down. That would hit the party hard, even if one of the deputy premiers could replace her. Legal experts from the opposition party have now suggested that if the caretaker premier is slapped with such a serious charge, then the whole caretaker Cabinet would have to go.

If that is the case, a political vacuum could arise, playing into the hands of the PDRC, who would cite that as an opening to seek a "non-partisan" acting prime minister.

Pheu Thai has already made known its view that the Constitutional Court didn't have the authority to rule on the validity of the February 2 election in the first place. If it continues to stick to that position, the various political scenarios for the next few months could be highly complicated - and potentially explosive.

In other words, one phase of the battle has ended only to usher in a new battle that could get uglier than the first one.


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