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Thai Election Commission suggests minimum one month vote delay

Source: Reuters - Mon, 27 Jan 2014 07:48 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Election Commission wants month's delay in vote

* Government refuses to back down

* PM and Election Commission to meet on Tuesday

* Latest killing is dangerous trend - analyst

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Thailand's Election Commission said a contentious election planned for next week should be postponed for at least a month, warning of more bloodshed after violent clashes over the weekend.

The commission meets embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Tuesday to discuss the election date after a Constitutional Court ruling opened the way for a delay in the face of months of anti-government protests in the capital.

"As election officials, it is our job to make sure elections are successful, but we also need to make sure the country is peaceful enough to hold the election. We don't want it to be bloody," Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, a Commission member, told Reuters on Monday.

Interior Minister Jarupong Ruangsuwan, also head of the ruling Puea Thai Party, told Reuters the government would not back down on the date.

"We have to press ahead with the Feb. 2 election ... A postponement would be futile and would only give independent organisations more time to target the government," he said.

A protest leader was killed and 12 injured in a clash at an advance voting station in the Bangkok district of Bang-Na. That brought the death toll to 10 since protesters took to the streets of Bangkok in November to try to throw Yingluck's government out of office.

In a clear setback for Yingluck, protesters blocked as many as 45 of the capital's 50 polling stations on Sunday. But advance polls went ahead in 292 of the 375 electoral areas nationwide, the Election Commission said.

Yingluck called the Feb. 2 election in the hope of confirming her hold on power, but the protests have continued and protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, has rejected the election outright, saying he wants sweeping national reforms before a vote.

About 2.16 million people had registered for early polling in the country out of 49 million eligible voters.

Election official Somchai said even a delay of one month might not be enough to resolve the political deadlock, but waiting too long would leave the caretaker government unable to administer the country properly.

He said the commission did not agree with protesters' plans for an unelected "people's council" to take over the government.

"This is not the democratic way of doing things ... I don't think Suthep's reforms, within the time frame he gives, are possible."

EIGHT YEARS OF CONFLICT

The protests are the latest chapter in a political conflict that has gripped the country for eight years. It pits the middle class of Bangkok and protesters from the south, against the mainly poorer supporters in the north and east of Yingluck and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled by the military in 2006.

The latest violence is likely to add to Thailand's deepening political divide, with increasing talk that it could turn into civil war and force the military to step in.

The military, involved in 18 actual and attempted coups in the past 80 years, has so far stayed out of the dispute.

Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asia Affairs in northern Chiang Mai, said Thailand might have to settle on a decentralised form of administration, with different regions given broader jurisdiction to pursue their own policies.

Sunday's killing, Chambers said, reflects "the growing tit-for-tat" between the two sides.

"It is a dangerous trend, a harbinger symptomatic of the potential inception of civil war -- or a future clash between police and army that could lead to a coup," he said.

"There are growing perceptions among people on each side that to avert civil war it might be necessary to regionally decentralise Thailand such that there is one country, two democracies... united only under the Kingdom of Thailand."

Yingluck's government led the country through a relatively peaceful period between 2011-2013 until her Puea Thai Party's mis-step in November when it tried to force through an amnesty bill. That would have allowed her brother to return a free man despite a 2008 jail sentence handed down for corruption he says was politically motivated. (Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Ron Popeski)

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