Thai tensions to rise as power struggle intensifies

Thai tensions to rise as power struggle intensifies
Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (R) receives a donation from his supporters as he marches during a rally in central Bangkok January 5, 2014.

BANGKOK - Thailand is heading for a political showdown as protesters plan to shut down Bangkok next week to sabotage an election while the government's supporters have vowed to stage massive counter-rallies in the country's provinces.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing swelling opposition in Bangkok ahead of the February 2 election in which her supporters in the rural north and northeast are expected to return her to power - if the vote goes ahead.

Thousands of demonstrators marched through Bangkok on Sunday as a prelude to rallies starting on January 13, when they plan to block government offices and occupy key intersections for days in a bid to force Yingluck out and scuttle the poll.

The protesters accuse Yingluck of being a puppet of her self-exiled brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.

They want an appointed "people's council" to oversee a vague reform platform, which includes electoral changes and decentralizing power over a 12-month period before any election.

Thai markets are expected to face pressure this week over the growing uncertainty.

The baht slid on Friday to its lowest against the dollar since February 2010 and the benchmark stock index has lost 15 per cent since early November, when the latest crisis began.

"We will keep walking, we won't stop," protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former top opposition lawmaker, said during Sunday's march.

"We will walk until we win and we won't give up."

Yingluck, 46, is refusing to postpone the poll, which she says would be unconstitutional.

Any election delay could heighten the uncertainty and make it harder for her caretaker government to function.

Yingluck enjoyed two smooth years in power until November, when her Puea Thai Party tried to force through an unpopular amnesty bill that would have nullified a 2008 graft conviction against Thaksin and allowed him to return a free man. Protests erupted.

The battle, an outbreak of turmoil stretching back eight years, broadly pits Bangkok's middle classes, southerners and an old-money oligarchy of royalists, conservatives and generals threatened by Thaksin's rise, against his mostly rural supporters and tycoons who prospered under his rule.

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