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Politics

Tensions mount over Thai election and reform

Thailand faces the threat of further clashes in the New Year as anti-government protesters step up a campaign to halt snap elections. Bloodshed has already claimed eight lives in ongoing demonstrations.

On Monday, December 30, Thailand's Election Commission met with government officials as candidate registration in eight largely southern provinces, strongholds of the opposition Democrat Party, which is boycotting the polls, was prevented as protestors blocked access to venues.

Faced with rising political tensions, the Election Commission earlier called for the vote to be postponed given the climate of violence as anti-government protestors press for political reforms before new polls.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra says the snap elections, which were recently announced, must take place as a way for Thailand to move out of the present political crisis. Yingluck has vowed to establish a National Reform Council, comprising representatives from professional organizations.

An anti-government protester uses a slingshot to throw rocks at Thai riot police as they attack the Thai-Japan youth stadium in central Bangkok December 26, 2013. Thai police fired teargas at anti-government protesters in the capital Bangkok on Thursday after demonstrators tried to disrupt planning for a February election, the first such incident in nearly two weeks. (Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Anti-government protesters initially rallied against an amnesty bill, before demanding Yingluck resign

But supporters of the anti-government protest movement and the Democrat Party say reforms need to precede any moves to fresh elections.

A protestor, Khun Nat, a postgraduate university student, told DW why he was at the rallies calling for reform: "I want to change the country in the right way. We are Thailand, we have the right to claim this back for our people."

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva says reforms need "the support of political parties and the people."

"The problem we have at the moment with the February 2 elections is that people no longer trust political parties and they feel that the elections will neither be fair nor credible and the results will not be accepted by all sides, regardless of who wins," Abhisit told DW.

Elections seen as fallback for government

The elections are seen by analysts as a final fallback position by Ms. Yingluck's government in a bid to ease political tensions after protests erupted when the Lower House of parliament passed an amnesty bill in late October to exonerate her brother Thaksin Shinawatra from corruption charges.

Antiregierungsproteste in Thailand Abhisit Vejjajiva

Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party asked the government to postpone the poll for talks

The negative reaction to the bill among the people was so great - anti-government groups claim that even in exile, Thaksin has an excessive degree of influence over the government - that in the end, it was rejected by the Senate and the government later distanced itself from it. But too late, it seems. In response to the mass protests, Yingluck called the snap election on December 9. This, too, triggered protests from those who claim they will not be held fairly.

Abhisit's democrat opposition party announced it would not register to run in the polls.

Abhisit says the opposition asked for the elections to be postponed to allow for talks. "The government turned it down and so I think the government on one side and protestors on the other became much more entrenched in their positions and there is less common ground that could be sought."

Prasaeng Mongkonsiri, an advisor to one of the parties registered for the poll, the Democratic Force Party, says the election is the only way to ease political tensions. "We believe the election is the peaceful solution for the country's problems - the only way to solve the problem peacefully."

Increasing violence

Violence broke out last Thursday as parties sought to register for the poll, with anti-government protestors, led by students, clashing with police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets. The violence left one police officer and a student protestor dead. Over 150 people were injured.

On Saturday, December 28, a drive-by shooting at the main protest site in the early hours left one 26-year-old man dead and several wounded. Nititorn Lamlhuea, an advisor to the student-led network protesting the poll, said two vehicles came close to the site and opened fire using a semi-automatic weapon. The man died later in hospital.

Over 30 parties have registered for the polls, led by the governing Pheu Thai Party of Yingluck.

New York-based Human Rights Watch senior researcher, Sunai Pasuk, says the Election Commission needs to ensure "that free and fair elections can happen." "Protestors can exercise their rights to oppose the election on the 2nd of February, but they don't have any legitimacy to use violence to derail the preparation of the election," Sunai said.

Fear of a military coup

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban had urged election officials in every province to listen to the people's demand for reform before the election. Suthep says in the New Year he will call on protestors to "seize Bangkok."

Riot policemen carry an injured colleague after clashes with anti-government protesters near the Thai-Japan youth stadium in central Bangkok December 26, 2013. Thai police fired teargas at anti-government protesters in the capital Bangkok on Thursday after demonstrators tried to disrupt planning for a February election, the first such incident in nearly two weeks. (Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Some fear violence could escalate to levels of 2010

"That is coming," he said. "I don't believe that the actions after the New Year will be peaceful. Thailand is entering a phase of brinkmanship; one of the worst in modern history that Suthep and his supporters claim to be the great masses."

"But they are only a fraction of the entire population and we don't know how long Thaksin supporters can refrain from reacting to Suthep's side. That is worrying."

The Thai military at the end of last week said it would intervene if the violence went beyond the control of the police. Army chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, told the media at a special press conference, military intervention was possible. "Anything can happen, it all depends on the situation."

But this prompted speculation over a possible military coup - with which Thailand is all too familiar. For clarity, army spokesperson Winthai Suwaree told the media on Monday, December 30, "The army would like to insist there's no secret meetings or any operations by the military as speculated."