Politicians of all shades have united in a rare move to slam the National Legislative Assembly after its chief whip suggested all sides agree to a three-month election delay if they want to be sure the related organic bills won't face legal challenges in the future.
The NLA on March 7 overwhelmingly passed the bills on MP and senator elections, the last two organic laws needed to come into effect before the general election can be held, to the relief of politicians and eager voters.
The bills were supposed to be sent to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to seek royal approval, which would take up to 90 days, after which the 150-day countdown to polling day could officially begin.
But their joy proved to be short-lived. Six days after the NLA passed the bills, Meechai Ruchupan, the head constitution writer who helped draft them, suggested the NLA send the two bills to the Constitutional Court first to ensure they were completely sound.
Mr Meechai expressed doubts about the reconciled bills, saying some parts were drastically different from the versions his team drafted, to the point they could be unconstitutional. If the laws were challenged in the Constitutional Court after polls are held and if the court ruled them unconstitutional, the election could be nullified and everything would go back to square one.
The NLA decided on Thursday to partially take Mr Meechai’s advice by sending only the senators bill to the Constitutional Court.
They reasoned by doing so, the junta's so-called roadmap would remain intact and the election could still be held in February next year as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha indicated earlier.
Several politicians have since voiced their concern and want the NLA to send the MP bill to the court as well to ensure a smooth road ahead.
Somchai Sawangkarn, the NLA chief whip, said on Saturday that the junta-picked legislature would not send the MP bill for a court review as it was confident the bill was constitutional.
“If after the election someone challenges it and the court agrees with him, it will affect only some groups and the law would not be scrapped," he said.
“If political parties are so worried, they should send us a joint memorandum agreeing to a three-month delay to the election and we'll immediately send it to the Constitutional Court."
His suggestion angered many politicians, who insisted this was the NLA’s responsibility. If the election is cancelled because the MP law has problems in future, the NLA could be sued to foot the bill for new polls. The last general election cost taxpayers about 3 billion baht.
Nipit Intarasombat, a senior member of the Democrat Party, said it was the NLA that passed the laws and there was nothing politicians could do about it.
“We can’t even hold meetings. Mr Meechai warned about the changes the NLA made to the bills several times but it took no heed. People can’t help but wonder whether this is just a performance,” he said.
Chaovalit Wichayasut, acting deputy secretary-general of the Pheu Thai Party, said suspicions were already high after the NLA scrapped the selection of seven election commissioners. “We can’t help but think the chaos is to delay the polls,” he said.
Somsak Prissananuntakul of the Chartthaipattana Party said the NLA had never listened to Mr Meechai from the start.
“The NLA also is giving the court three months to consider the bill [when the charter doesn't set the timeframe]. What if the court rules the entire bill unconstitutional and it has to be rewritten? Don’t hold the bill hostage so you can stay on,” he said.
Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, deputy rector at Thammasat University, said that if the election was delayed yet again, the National Council for Peace and Order could not deny responsibility.
“Any act that puts off the election could be viewed as a conflict of interest because it automatically extends the terms of the 'Five Rivers' (the NCPO and associated executive and legislative bodies), who are paid with taxpayers' money to do the jobs,” he said.
One of the issues Mr Meechai raised about the MP bill concerns the ban on people who fail to vote from becoming political officials. He maintains that pursuing public office is not a right but a liberty so it can't be restricted under Section 95 of the constitution.
The other issue involves allowing a person or poll station staff member to vote on behalf of a handicapped person, which could breach the constitutional provision that voting must be done confidentially.