PM denies poll delay conspiracy
Bill on MPs may need charter court ruling
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Tuesday denied the military regime was conspiring to delay next February's election via potential plans to submit a poll-related bill to the Constitutional Court for a ruling on its validity.
The bill on the election of MPs may be forwarded to the charter court for the ruling before it is submitted for royal endorsement, Gen Prayut said.
The premier earlier promised the poll would take place next February, a claim critics have taken with a pinch of salt as it was originally scheduled to be held in 2015.
The final two organic bills facilitating the return to democracy -- one on electing MPs and another on the selection of senators -- sailed through the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) on March 8.
That same body on March 19 decided to forward the latter bill to the charter charter court to rule on its constitutionality as requested by the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC). However, it ignored a similar request for the MP bill.
The assembly decided to forward that bill to the prime minister so he could decide the next step.
"I don't want to submit it for royal endorsement as long as there are still disputes," he said.
Concerned parties may wish to heed public calls to fast-track matters but the situation requires careful consideration in order to avoid further problems, Gen Prayut said.
He said he has asked legal officials to look closely at the bill and determine whether the charter court should be asked to vet it.
Gen Prayut said he has until April 12 to decide whether to petition the court.
After receiving the bill from the NLA, the prime minister is obligated to submit it to the palace for royal endorsement within 25 days.
The premier, however, insisted the roadmap to the poll should not be changed as the vetting proceedings are expected to be quick.
The bill contains two controversial points that the CDC has disputed.
One concerns a clause that allows election staff or other individuals to help disabled people cast their vote, something the charter drafters said could conflict with the stipulation that ballots must be cast in secret.
Another involves the clause that prohibits people who fail to vote in national elections without good reason from being appointed as political office holders, something that the CDC considers as being a step too far.
Gen Prayut said in the latter clause, any political office holders who may feel they have been deprived of their rights or liberties could eventually look for legal challenges to thwart the stipulation.
The premier said he would tread carefully in handling the bill to ward off any problems before it is submitted to His Majesty the King.
"The government will solve the problem at this stage, first. I can confirm this will not affect the roadmap," he said.
"We are considering [petitioning the court]," Gen Prayut said. "We still have time. But as I've said, whether or not we do this must be decided in consideration of the roadmap."
He insisted there was no conspiracy to delay the return to democracy. "I'm not interested in dragging things out," the prime minister said.
He said it was important to make sure the two bills would not spark legal disputes that could derail social stability.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said if the charter court rules against any of the two bills, the legislation would be dropped and the drafting process would have to start anew.
The prospect of the petition happening has drawn flak from the Pheu Thai Party.
Pheu Thai member Chusak Sirinil said it is not clear how long the court would need to deliberate the bill but the timing of the election would come under threat.
"I don't understand what their intention is," he said. "Or are they just trying to buy time?"
"Whatever the reason, this is causing people to lose confidence [that the premier will keep his word regarding the February date]," Mr Chusak said.
"This does suggest that members of a certain group intend to cause problems with the legislation. If they had wanted to write a charter-aligned bill, they could have already done so."
Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva suggested a compromise.
"I agree with efforts to clarify the bill but the National Council for Peace and Order [NCPO] must also make clear that the process would not cause any postponement to the election," the former prime minister said.
As the bill will come into force 90 days after it is published in the Royal Gazette, Mr Abhisit said the regime should reduce the time frame for its enforcement to either 60 days or 30 days.
"That would depend on the sincerity of Gen Prayut, as he has the power to make decisions like that," said Mr Abhisit.
Also Tuesday, NLA whip spokesman Jate Siratharanon said the prime minister could send the bill back to the NLA president, and that 10% of NLA members could sign their names to petition the court to rule on the bill.
This could happen at the NLA meeting at the end of the week if the prime minister decides to go down that path, he said.
Referring to concerns that the bill may not reach the palace by April 12, Mr Jate said that would be unlikely as the court only spent a month vetting the organic bills on the Ombudsman and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).
CDC chairman Meechai Ruchupan said petitioning the court does not necessarily equate to another delay.
Once the petition has been submitted, the court can be asked to conclude the deliberation process within 30 days, Mr Meechai said.
Pro-election activists are putting pressure on the military to stop supporting the NCPO and resign from the council.
They also demanded the NCPO be dissolved and the government remain only in a caretaker role.
The group rallied in front of the Royal Thai Army Headquarters on Ratchadamnoen Avenue on Saturday.
The activists vowed to stage a bigger and longer rally in May unless their demands are met.
Meanwhile, air force commander Jom Rungsawang has expressed confidence that the chiefs of the armed forces would not resign from their positions on the NCPO as called for by pro-election activists.
"It is unlikely that armed force commanders would step down as NCPO members," ACM Jom said.
Referring to reports that pro-election advocates would gather in front of the air force base to put pressure on the military, ACM Jom joked: "Please do not come all the way out to the air force base in Don Muang. It is so far away and you will end up exhausted."