BANGKOK : Thailand’s government vowed Tuesday to push ahead with controversial elections this weekend, despite threats by opposition protesters to disrupt the polls in an attempt to stop the ruling party returning to power.
The announcement followed talks between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and election officials, who urged a delay following violence in which at least 10 people have been killed and hundreds injured in grenade attacks, drive-by shootings and clashes.
In the latest incident, shots were fired Tuesday near a Bangkok army facility where Yingluck was holding meetings, as hundreds of protesters massed outside. Emergency services said two people were injured. Police later said an undercover officer fired a shot to fend off angry protesters who saw him, injuring one demonstrator.
The officer was then left “critically injured” by rally guards who severely beat him, police added in a statement.
The Thai capital has been shaken by nearly three months of mass street demonstrations, demanding Yingluck’s elected government step down to make way for an unelected “people’s council” that would oversee reforms aimed at curbing the dominance of her billionaire family.
“Even if the election is postponed, the problems will not go away. I don’t think that the (protest) movement will stop,” Deputy Prime Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana told reporters.
The kingdom has been bitterly divided since Yingluck’s older brother Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister by royalist generals in a coup more than seven years ago.
Critics accuse the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician of controlling his sister’s government from Dubai, where he lives to avoid prison for a corruption conviction.
The Election Commission (EC) proposed during Tuesday’s talks to postpone the election for 120 days, but after discussions it agreed with the government to press ahead with the February 2 vote.
The EC fears that there might be “clashes” during voting, election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn told reporters, adding that polling stations would close early in the event of problems.
The main opposition Democrat Party is boycotting Sunday’s polls, saying reforms are needed to ensure the vote is truly democratic and to prevent abuse of power by the next government.
‘No justification’ for voter intimidation
Advance voting over the weekend was marred by widespread disruption by opposition protesters who besieged polling stations and stopped hundreds of thousands from casting ballots.
“The protesters claim they are fighting corruption and seeking reforms, but this doesn’t justify their use of force and intimidation to block voting,” Brad Adam, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Tuesday.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban late Tuesday urged supporters to “prepare everything to not allow the election to happen on February 2”, raising fears of further violence.
An anti-government rally leader was shot dead on Sunday while giving a speech from the back of a pickup truck in a Bangkok suburb, during the campaign by demonstrators to block advance voting.
In another apparently politically related killing, the body of a man wearing a wristband popular among protesters was found Tuesday near a rally site with several bullet wounds, according to police, although the circumstances of his death were unclear.
“Thailand is spiralling into political violence as opposition and pro-government groups respond tit-for-tat against attacks and provocations,” Adams said.
“Leaders on all sides need to rein in their supporters, order the attacks to stop, and negotiate a political solution that respects democratic principles before the situation deteriorates further.”
Yingluck’s meeting with the election authorities came after the Constitutional Court last Friday ruled that the polls could legally be pushed back because of the civil strife.
The government notes that under the constitution an election should normally be held no more than 60 days after the dissolution of parliament, which happened in early December.
The protesters have staged a self-styled “shutdown” of Bangkok since January 13, occupying several main intersections, although attendance has gradually dwindled and disruption has been limited.
The government has declared a 60-day state of emergency in the capital and surrounding areas, giving authorities the power to ban public gatherings of more than five people, although they have not yet done so and demonstrators have vowed to defy the decree.