Caretaker Thai govt rejects call to delay polls

Riot policemen carry an injured colleague after clashes with anti-government protesters near the Thai-Japan youth stadium in central Bangkok December 26, 2013.

BANGKOK- Thailand's caretaker government rejected a call by the election commission to postpone the Feb 2 polls, after clashes between protesters and police left one policeman dead and scores injured.

"The February 2 election will go ahead," Acting Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana said in a televised address. "There is no law allowing the government to delay the election."

The issue has plunged ASEAN's second-largest economy into deeper political uncertainty three weeks after street protests forced then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to dissolve the House of Representatives and seek a fresh mandate.

Violence broke out yesterday after anti-government protesters, who want the election to be postponed pending political reforms, tried to enter Bangkok stadium. It is being used as a registration centre for political parties registering their party lists.

After warning them, police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to repel the invasion while protesters hurled rocks and bottles. In the ensuing melee, one policeman died after being shot in the chest. By about 3pm yesterday, 66 were injured, said the Erawan Emergency Centre.

Both police and protesters accused each other of using excessive violence. Spokesman Akanat Promphan for the self-titled People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) said: "The police… attacked the anti-government protesters."

Still, the election commission (EC) yesterday managed to allocate to 30 political parties the order in which they would appear on the ballot paper. Its commissioners were later evacuated by helicopter from the stadium.

The EC has not changed the venue for party-list registrations despite a blockade by anti-government protest groups from Monday. Its five commissioners issued a statement yesterday urging the caretaker government to postpone the polls until both sides in the conflict reach an agreement.

It said: "The violence… would be more serious if the election goes on", adding that they were ready to mediate talks between the government and protesters.

If nothing was done to ease tensions, each commissioner would act according to his own discretion, the statement said.

The call sparked an angry response from caretaker Interior Minister and Puea Thai party leader Jarupong Ruangsuwan, who said yesterday: "The election commission has a duty to carry out the whole process."

The latest developments have cast a pall over the registration of election candidates for individual constituencies, which is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

Yesterday's violence was the second major confrontation between police and protesters in the two-month-long bid to topple the Puea Thai party-led government. The protest is backed by royalists, the urban middle class and old money, as well as many from southern Thailand - a stronghold of the opposition Democrat party which is boycotting the polls.

The PDRC wants to rid Thailand of the influence of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms Yingluck's brother. He is seen as holding power behind the scenes despite having lived in self-exile abroad to evade a jail sentence for corruption. Thaksin remains popular among the masses in Thailand's populous north-east, which guarantees the Puea Thai party a win in the Feb 2 polls.

The tycoon, said a Bangkok Post report, recently urged all his family members to adopt a "low profile". Ms Yingluck is the top candidate in Puea Thai's party list for the upcoming polls, and Thaksin's brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat is second on the list.

The protesters want political reforms under a "people's assembly" before elections are called.

Ms Yingluck, meanwhile, has suggested reforms to be undertaken by the new government immediately after the Feb 2 polls, with an agenda set by a "national reform council" drawn from a group of 2,000 representatives of various professions.


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