BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's Constitutional Court nullified last month's general election on Friday, forcing new polls and aggravating a political crisis in which protesters have occupied parts of the capital for four months to demand the government yield power to an interim appointed council.
The judges voted 6-3 to declare the Feb. 2 election unconstitutional because voting was not held on the same day in 28 constituencies where protesters prevented candidates from registering. The constitution says the election should 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 in announcing the decision.
Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has refused the protesters' demands that she resign, and called early elections to receive a fresh mandate. The protesters attempted to prevent the election from taking place, physically blocking and intimidating candidates and voters.
Yingluck's Pheu Thai party and its predecessors have easily won every national election since 2001. It had been expected to win again in February, especially because the opposition Democrat Party boycotted the election.
Yingluck's standing as caretaker prime minister was unaffected by Friday's ruling.
Election Commission President Supachai Somcharoen said it would take at least three months for a new election to be held. In 2006, there was an eight-month gap before rescheduled polls were to be held after an election was nullified, but the army carried out a coup before they could take place.
Thailand has suffered from severe political conflict since then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, was ousted in the 2006 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.
The latest protests have kept the government, already limited by its caretaker status, from carrying out any major policy initiatives. The protesters have blockaded and sometime occupied government offices in the capital.
Election commissioner Supachai said he was not worried that the protesters would block a new election.
"Times have changed and so has the situation," he said, without further explanation. He urged people to love their country and work to help it.
"If there's a new election, the country can then move forward," he said. But he added that "If the situation is still intense, then we should not hold the election because it will be a waste of people's tax money."
The government has accused the Election Commission of being complicit in the polling debacle by failing to take aggressive measures against the protesters.
Yingluck's party questioned the Constitutional Court's authority to accept the case, but did not say what it might do in response. The party feels it has been treated unfairly by the courts and by nominally independent agencies such as the Election Commission, which it regards as politically hostile.
Even if new polls were to proceed smoothly, Yingluck faces several other legal challenges that could force her from office.
Yingluck's opponents also hope that the failure to form a new government will spark a constitutional crisis, allowing them to invoke vaguely defined clauses in the charter to have an unelected prime minister installed.
"We insist that the Pheu Thai party will play by the rules under democracy and use nonviolent means, no matter how much we are bullied," party spokesman Prompong Nopparit 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?"
Verapat Pariyawong, an independent political analyst, derided the court's decision.
"It no longer makes sense to attempt to explain the current political situation in Thailand by relying on legal principles and the constitutional framework," he said. "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."
The government's opponents applauded the ruling.
"I think today's decision is the beginning of a solution to the nation's crisis," said Democrat Party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut. "The government now will have to revise its strategy on how to make an election fair, peaceful and without disruptions. The Democrat Party will participate in an election when it's accepted by all sides and held fairly."
The Democrat Party 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 to reduce corruption and end her powerful family's influence in politics.
"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," protest movement spokesman Akanat Pomphan said.
The protesters, whose main support comes from the Democrats' strongholds in Bangkok and southern Thailand, continue to occupy a park in central Bangkok. They have clashed with police and rivals, and been targeted in gun and grenade attacks by unknown parties. The violence has left at least 23 people dead and hundreds hurt.