Abhisit urges delay in July polls to allow time for reforms

BANGKOK - Thai opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva on Saturday urged that a general election planned for July be delayed by up to six months to allow time for reforms aimed at ending a protracted political crisis that threatens to explode.

Protesters have been trying to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra since November, part of a long-running crisis that broadly pits Bangkok's middle class and royalist establishment against the mainly poor, rural supporters of Ms Yingluck and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin was ousted by the military in 2006 and now lives in exile to avoid a jail term handed down in 2008 for abuse of power. His opponents accuse him of corruption and nepotism.

Thailand's Election Commission and Ms Yingluck agreed on Wednesday to hold a general election on July 20, but anti-government protesters who disrupted a vote in February said they still wanted electoral reforms before a new poll.

Former Prime Minister Abhisit, who launched a mediation effort on April 24, told a news conference the vote should be delayed by five or six months while a committee thrashed out reforms that would be put to a referendum.

While that was being done, he wanted the country to be run by a neutral interim government with limited powers. The panel should include representatives of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the protest group led by Mr Suthep Thaugsuban, who was a deputy prime minister under Mr Abhisit until 2011.

"I have said from the start that no side will get what they want 100 per cent from what I am proposing. But... the government will see an election, people will get to vote in the next five to six months. The PDRC protesters will get their neutral government," Mr Abhisit said.

He said he would not be part of the reform committee and that no politician should sit on it, but he gave few details on its likely composition. He also said he would not take up a political position in future if his plan was accepted, although his medium-term intentions are unclear.

"I would like to ask Yingluck: is there any part of my proposal that damages the country?" he said.

Mr Abhisit faces an uphill task to win everyone over, especially as supporters of Ms Yingluck distrust him. When he was in power in 2010, Mr Abhisit sent in the army to end a pro-Thaksin protest. He also sided with the protest movement last year and his Democrat Party boycotted the general election in February.

Government supporters are likely to see his proposals as reflecting the PDRC platform. And protest leader Suthep has shown no willingness to compromise, saying he will pursue the fight until Ms Yingluck has been ousted and the influence of the Shinawatra family is finished.

Supporters of the Suthep plan a big gathering in Bangkok on May 5. The pro-government "red shirts" have said they will rally on May 10 on the outskirts of the capital.

Anti-Yingluck protests attracted more than 200,000 people at their height late last year but numbers have dwindled over time. However, hard-core demonstrators say they will continue to harass the government until Ms Yingluck is forced out.

She also faces threats from the courts, most immediately from a charge of abuse of power for allegedly removing a national security chief for party political reasons. The Constitutional Court could hand down a verdict on that charge this month and she would have to step down if found guilty.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission is also probing allegations of dereliction of duty relating to a failed rice intervention scheme. If it decides there is a case to answer, she faces impeachment by the Senate.

Her supporters have said they will take to the streets if she is removed by what they say are politicised judges. The risk of confrontation with anti-government protesters lends urgency to Mr Abhisit's mediation efforts.

Ms Yingluck has led a caretaker government with limited fiscal powers since dissolving parliament in December. The crisis has damaged business confidence, and the central bank has warned the economy could shrink in the first quarter. Some economists fear the country could slip into recession unless the deadlock is broken soon and a new government installed.