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Thai politics: A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

Can the snap election scheduled for February 2 be postponed? If the caretaker government and the Election Commission don't see eye to eye, who's going to decide? If the ballot-casting exercise is to be carried out, how messy will it get? And who will be responsible for the consequences?

Less than 10 days from the scheduled date, those questions remain unanswered. Chaos promises to prevail until the very last minute.

The EC is at loggerheads with the Yingluck government over whether the polls can be delayed. The country is virtually divided right down the middle.

The independent election agency says that even if the poll is held on the scheduled date, there won't be a parliament to speak of since the probability of producing the required 95 per cent of the total number of MPs is very low. So far, 28 constituencies, all of them in the South, have registered not a single candidate. Another 22 have only one candidate each. The law requires that if there is no contest in any constituency, the lone candidate must get at least 20 per cent of the total number of votes and exceed the "No" votes cast.

There is also the problem of a lack of volunteers from local government agencies to man the polling booths. The number of missing officials is as high as 100,000 and the Interior Ministry isn't offering any assurance it can fill that huge gap.

The government hit back by declaring that the law authorises the EC to conduct an election. Period. It doesn't empower the agency to postpone an election. The EC responded by saying that the government could proceed with the ballot-casting on February 2 but that it would be held responsible for the consequences.

There is obviously no love lost between the two. Instead of sitting down with the five Election Commissioners, Premier Yingluck sent invitations to 70-odd representatives from various political parties, academics and business leaders to discuss the election date. With the majority of the attendants being members of the 53 parties "contesting" the upcoming election, the conclusion was predictable: The polls must be held on schedule.

The tricky question is what happens if the February 2 election doesn't produce over 95 per cent of the 500 MPs?

Under Article 93, if the number of MPs falls below 475, by-elections will have to be held within 180 days to come up with a number higher than 475 in order to convene the first parliamentary session.

Another technical question arises: When does one start the countdown for the 180-day period?

Another clause in the Constitution - Article 127 - stipulates that within 30 days of the election, the first House session must be convened. But then, if the number of MPs fails to reach 475, the first House meeting can't be held.

Things get complicated because the current stalemate is unprecedented. When the charter writers were debating the constitutional drafts years ago, they couldn't possibly have imagined a situation as entangled as this.

With the first deadline drawing very close, the only option left is to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on the conflicting positions. But then, there are conflicts within the conflicts: Even if the court could hand down a verdict on the issue before February 2, there is still the question of whether the caretaker government will accept a decision if it goes against its present position.

The ruling Pheu Thai Party has more than once publicly declared that it doesn't have to accept every verdict of the Constitutional Court.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.


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