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Last Updated: Monday, 8 May 2006, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Thais face return to the ballot box
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Bangkok

Few people would blame the Thais if they began to feel fed up of ticking boxes on a ballot paper.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - 3/2/06
Will Mr Thaksin will now return to contest new elections?

In February, scarcely a year after the last general election, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced he was taking the country back to the polls.

Now the Constitutional Court has ruled that this election was invalid, and Thais have been left facing another trip to the polling station.

"We're back to square one," said Chaiwat Khamchoo, a lecturer in political science at Chulalongkorn University.

At an estimated cost of $50m per election, some might question the wisdom of having yet another nationwide poll.

THAILAND'S POLITICAL CRISIS
23 January: Thaksin sells 49.6% family stake in telecoms company Shin Corp
4 February: 50,000 attend rally in Bangkok demanding Thaksin's resignation; similar rallies then continue
24 February: Thaksin dissolves parliament and calls snap election
27 February: Three main opposition parties say they will boycott the polls
2 April: Thais vote for new government amid opposition boycott
4 April: Thaksin says he will step down, despite winning 57% of the vote, because of large protest 'no vote'
23 April: By-elections held, but fail to resolve crisis
25 April: Thai king calls on court to solve "mess"
8 May: Constitutional Court rules 2 April election invalid

But in the last few weeks, as Thailand's main decision-making bodies grappled with the vagaries of the country's constitution, it became increasingly obvious that there was simply no other choice.

"It was the only option they could have chosen," said political analyst Pasuk Pongpaichitr. "The election in April should never have taken place.

"Because the opposition boycotted it, the whole thing was undemocratic, as only one party would have been in power."

The Constitutional Court's ruling paves the way for a new poll, in which the opposition Democrat Party has promised to participate with "no conditions attached", removing the central problem of the last election.

At first glance it might seem that Thailand has finally extricated itself from the political quagmire of the last few months.

"This is an auspicious day for Thailand," Mr Chaiwat said on Monday. "The situation should get better now."

But there are also many questions still waiting to be resolved. The unfolding saga has exposed important loop holes in the Thai constitution, suggesting it needs urgent reform.

If [Thaksin] does run, the same old problems will come back
Pasuk Pongpaichitr, political analyst

And then there is the question to which everyone keeps returning - will the seemingly unstoppable Mr Thaksin run again for prime minister, delighting his supporters but angering the demonstrators whose protest marches caused him to call the election in the first place?

"If he is wise, he should not run again," said Ms Pasuk. "If he does run, the same old problems will come back."

By announcing the need for another poll, Thailand has taken an important step forward. But it is clear that the political crisis which has engulfed it in the last few months is not over yet.

Quagmire

Ever since the April election took place, Thailand has been struggling to deal with its aftermath.

A protestor raises a placard showing cartoon of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at a protest rally in downtown Bangkok, 16 March 2006.
Protests prompted Mr Thaksin to call the poll in the first place

Mr Thaksin called the poll in an effort to win a fresh mandate, in the wake of the anti-government demonstrations.

He did - winning 57% of the vote - but because the main opposition parties boycotted the poll, demanding constitutional reform, there was never really any danger he would not come out victorious.

But the large number of protest "no votes" persuaded him to step aside, and they also plunged the country into a dilemma.

Parliament could not convene, as there were still some parliamentary seats which remained unfilled because of the boycott. Critics were also increasingly scathing about the possibility of a new government that was virtually a one-party dictatorship run by Thai Rak Thai.

Finally the nation's beloved king came to the rescue. In a rare TV address, he called the situation a "mess", and criticised the fact so many ruling party candidates ran unopposed due to the opposition boycott.

His speech galvanised the main players into action. Almost immediately, Thailand's main judicial bodies met to discuss the situation. Then, in an about-face, the Democrats announced they would take part in a new election if the April poll was annulled.

From then on, it was only a matter of time before the poll was invalidated, and fresh elections were called for.

Constitutional reform

Once certainty which has become evident in the past few weeks is that whichever party gets into power after this next election will have to put constitutional change at the heart of its agenda.

"These past weeks have made people realise how important it is to reform the constitution," said Ms Pasuk.

Grey areas, such as what should happen if a full parliament cannot convene, need to be ironed out.

The central complaint of the Democrat Party, that Mr Thaksin was sometimes able to use his power and position to influence what were meant to be independent bodies - such as the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court - also needs to be addressed.

Throughout all these changes, though, the Thai electorate may well find some familiar patterns.

If and when the constitution is altered, it may well necessitate the Thai people doing something which they are rapidly becoming expert at - voting on the changes by making yet another trip to the polling station.


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