BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's Constitutional Court ruled Friday that a general election held in February was invalid, but the country's political crisis appeared again to be complicating arrangements for a new vote.
The judges voted 6-3 to declare the Feb. 2 election unconstitutional because voting was not held that day in 28 constituencies where protesters had prevented candidates from registering. The constitution says the election must be held on the same day nationwide, although it also allows advance voting.
"The process (now) is to have a new general election," Pimol Thampitakpong, the court's secretary-general, said at a news conference announcing the decision.
Election Commission President Supachai Somcharoen said it will take no less than three months until the general election can take place again. In 2006, there was an 8-month gap before rescheduled polls were to be held after an election was nullified, but before it could take place, the army carried out a coup.
Thailand has suffered from severe political conflict since 2006, when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — brother of current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — was ousted by a military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin's supporters and opponents have since taken to the streets for extended periods in a power struggle.
Prompong Nopparit, a spokesman for Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party, said it would take an official position after studying the ruling. The party feels it has been treated unfairly by the courts, which its sees as hostile.
"We insist that the Pheu Thai Party will play by the rules under democracy and by nonviolent means, no matter how much we are bullied," he said. "The reason this election is nullified is because the polls were blocked by the protesters, weren't they? We've played by the rules all along, but what about the other side?"
He said the party would sue those it believed undermined the election, including protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, the opposition Democrat Party and the Election Commission, which made little effort to rein in the protesters.
"I think today's decision is the beginning toward the solution to the nation's crisis," said Democrat Party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut. "The government now will have to revise their strategy on how to make an election fair, peaceful and without disruptions. The Democrat Party will participate in the election when it's accepted by all sides and held fairly."
The Democrat Party boycotted the February election and is closely linked to the People's Democratic Reform Committee protest movement, which sparked the crisis late last year when it demanded that Yingluck's administration be replaced by an unelected "people's council" to implement reforms it says are needed to end corruption and money politics.
Protest movement spokesman Akanat Promphan said the court put the blame for the failed election on Yingluck's government.
"The crux of the matter is not the date of the next elections, but ensuring that elections are free, fair, and clean," He said. "The court ruling presents the opportunity for Thailand to implement the necessary reforms to achieve this so we can all move forward together as a nation."
The Democrat Party is closely linked to the protest group, which is led by some of its former lawmakers. While its new words appeared conciliatory, they represented virtually the same position it took in boycotting the nullified election. Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party and its predecessors, operating under different names, have easily won every national election since 2001.
Yingluck refused to resign and called early elections in a bid to ensure a fresh mandate. But the protesters tried to prevent the election from taking place, physically blocking and intimidating both potential candidates and voters. It was their efforts that prevented voting from being completed on the same day.
Yingluck's opponents hope that that the failure to form a new government will spark a constitutional crisis allowing them to invoke some vaguely defined clauses of the charter to have a non-elected prime minister installed.
The Constitutional Court issued its ruling after being petitioned by the state ombudsman, who accepted a complaint lodged by a university law lecturer.
"It no longer makes sense to attempt to explain the current political situation in Thailand by relying on legal principles and constitutional framework," commented independent political analyst Verapat Pariyawong. "The current situation is more or less a phenomenon of raw politics whereby the rule of law is conveniently stretched and stripped to fit a political goal."
But even if new polls did proceed smoothly, Yingluck faces several legal challenges that could force her from office, faced with a judiciary which has a record of hostility toward her and her political allies.
The protesters, whose main strength is in the Democrats' southern strongholds and Bangkok, have maintained constant street demonstrations in the capital. They have clashed with police and rivals, and been the target of gun and grenade attacks by unknown parties. The violence has left at least 23 people dead and hundreds hurt.
Police Col. Kamthorn Auicharoen said Friday that two grenades fired overnight from an M79 launcher landed on houses near a Constitutional Court judge's residence in Bangkok, injuring one man. Most such incidents but not all have targeted opponents of the government.