BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's Constitutional Court ruled Friday that a Feb. 2 election opposed by anti-government protesters can legally be delayed. There was no immediate word on whether the vote would be postponed.
The head of the Election Commission, which asked the court for the ruling, has argued that the polls should be delayed because of unrest that has shaken the country since protesters took to the streets late last year.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government had maintained that the date, fixed by royal decree, was unchangeable. Caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Varathep Rattanakorn said the government would have to study the ruling before deciding what action to take.
The protesters have already declared that an election postponement alone will not end their confrontation with Yingluck's caretaker government. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has demanded that Yingluck resign and that a non-elected council of "good people" govern and implement political reforms for up to two years before any ballot is held. In his nightly speech to followers, he did not mention the court's ruling.
The protesters say Yingluck's government is carrying on the practices of Thaksin Shinawatra, her billionaire brother who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, by using the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and cement its power.
They regard Yingluck as a stand-in for Thaksin, who was ousted by a military coup after street protests accused him of corruption and abuse of power. He fled into exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for conflict of interest.
The protesters have occupied key intersections in the capital and tried to shut down government offices and prevent civil servants from working to pressure Yingluck to resign. Unrest since November has left at least nine people dead and more than 550 injured.
The government this past week imposed a state of emergency on Bangkok and surrounding areas after a spate of violence. The measure allows suspension of many civil liberties. The protesters say they will ignore any measures imposed by the decree, which is valid for 60 days.
Authorities announced Friday they are banning the protesters from 26 roads, and Suthep said his group would make a point of marching on all of them. The opposition Democrat Party, which is closely allied with the protesters, is boycotting the election.
Democrat Party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut applauded Friday's ruling and urged the government to postpone the polls, but said his party would only participate if it feels they are being held under trustworthy conditions acceptable to all people.
The court ruled that the power for postponement rests with the prime minister in consultation with the Election Commission chief. It said delays were justified under the law "to prevent public disaster and severe damage from happening to the nation or the people."
Yingluck dissolved the lower house of Parliament in December and called the election in a bid to ease the political crisis. Even if the vote goes ahead, Parliament is unlikely to achieve the quorum it requires to convene because protesters have blocked candidate registration in several provinces. That means a caretaker government would remain in place until at least some of those provinces hold elections.
Thailand has struggled with political tension off and on since the 2006 coup. Tensions were rekindled late last year after a disastrous attempt by Yingluck's party to ram through a controversial amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return from self-imposed exile.
Associated Press writer Jinda Wedel contributed to this report.