Tue, Jan 28, 2014 - Page 6 News List

Thai election body calls for delay to vote, army neutral

Reuters, BANGKOK

A voter, left, is strangled by an anti-government protester as he tries to enter a polling station during advance voting in Bangkok on Sunday.

Photo: EPA

Thailand’s Election Commission yesterday urged a delay in next week’s planned national vote, warning of more bloodshed after violent clashes over the weekend.

A delay would drag out a festering crisis that risks dividing the country. The military, which has often stepped in to take control in the past, is resolutely staying out of the fray this time, despite appeals from anti-government protesters.

“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,” commission member Somchai Srisutthiyakorn told reporters. “We don’t want it to be bloody.”

The commission will meet embattled Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra today to discuss the vote date.

With protests aimed at toppling Yingluck now in their third month, there has been speculation that the armed forces might try a repeat of the 18 successful and attempted coups they have mounted in 80 years of on-off democracy in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

However, in comments to reporters, Thai Armed Forces Supreme Commander General Thanasak Patimapakorn, refused to be drawn on whether polls should be postponed.

“The Election Commission and the government will meet to discuss this tomorrow. Soldiers will not be able to say much more than this,” he said.

However, the military has also refused to rule out intervention.

The commission has said that the months of protests render the country too unstable to go to the polls on Feb. 2.

That argument was bolstered by the shooting on Sunday in Bangkok of a protest leader, taking to 10 the death toll since the protests started in November last year.

The protests, centered on the capital, Bangkok, have broad support among the city’s middle class and the traditional elite.

They are pitted against the mostly rural — and much larger — voting block in the country’s north made up of so-called “Red Shirt” supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced out of office by a military coup in 2006.

Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile to escape a 2008 jail sentence for corruption.

Red Shirt leaders have threatened to descend on the capital again if the military steps in. At least 90 people were killed in street fighting in Bangkok in 2010 between troops and the Red Shirts.

In their latest comments, neither the government nor the protesters showed any sign of backing down.

“We have to press ahead with the Feb. 2 election... A postponement would be futile and would only give independent organizations more time to target the government,” Thai Minister of the Interior Jarupong Ruangsuwan, who also leads the ruling Puea Thai Party, told reporters.

Yingluck called the Feb. 2 election in the hope of confirming her hold on power and would almost certainly win by a large margin.

Yet, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Thai deputy prime minister, has rejected the election outright. In a speech to demonstrators on Sunday he appealed to the military to “protect innocent people who fight with their hands.”

Yesterday, he said his “Bangkok Shutdown” movement would not accede to government requests to free up access to ministries and state agencies that they have blockaded.

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

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