Thai parties face membership cull ahead of election

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN Desk) – Junta hit with constitutional challenge as suspicions grow it is seeking ways to cling on to power   

Military-ruled Thailand has hit another obstacle in its road back to democracy after junta ordered an extension to deadlines that parties must follow ahead of elections. The move is designed to encourage the launch of military-backed parties that might serve as a vehicle for junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha to extend his rule beyond the schedule November 2018 election, critics say. 
The Democrat Party has slammed the junta’s order to extend deadlines for political parties as unconstitutional, saying it will launch a legal challenge against the extension. Parties are concerned they will haemorrhage members under the new deadlines, which give current members only month to decide whether to apply and pay membership fees or otherwise leave the party. 
Party leaders say it would be too difficult to have members submit letters in the narrow April 1-30 window stipulated. The order also cuts the time parties have for mandatory listing of their membership from 90 days down to 30 days.
Nipit Intharasombat, Democrat party deputy leader, said on Monday the junta’s order violated constitutional rights enshrined in the current party law where party membership only expires if people do not pay their membership fee within four years. 
Giving them just 30 days to confirm their membership and pay fees or else lose their status seriously affected people’s rights, so the Democrats would ask the Constitution Court to decide on the crucial issue, Nipit said.    
Abhisit Vejjajiva, the party’s leader, said the military should be more straightforward with the public if it wanted to delay the general election, and it should cite good reasons in attempting to do so. 
He said the controversial order requiring re-registration of members of political parties that existed before the 2014 coup would also put established major parties at a disadvantage compared to new parties. 
According to junta order, from March 1 anyone can set up a new party and solicit members but older parties have to wait until April to start their activities. 
On re-registering members of old parties, Abhisit said, major parties such as the Democrat Party, which has about 3 million members, would face a big challenge in meeting the deadline, especially if members are required to re-register in writing and pay fees within 30 days. 
The junta regime is under increasing pressure to lift its ban on political activities and gatherings, which has been in place since the coup of 2014. Critics say the junta is deliberately delaying the return to elections in a bid to engineer ways to cement the military’s influence after the return to a quasi-democracy. That influence is already strong thanks to the junta-drafted constitution’s provision for a Senate of unelected appointees to oversee the elected Lower House and government.       

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