Thai Protesters to Disrupt Polls as Yingluck Rejects Delay

Thai anti-government protesters said they plan to disrupt elections this weekend as part of a three-month campaign to unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and dismantle her brother’s political network.

Suthep Thaugsuban, a former opposition Democrat party politician, urged supporters to block polling stations on Feb. 2 after Yingluck rejected a proposal from the Election Commission to delay the vote until political tensions ease.

“We will do everything to prevent the election from happening,” Suthep told supporters late yesterday in Bangkok. “We don’t want Yingluck and her people to use the election as a way to extend their power. We will continue to shut down Bangkok by preventing state offices from reopening.”

Suthep, a former deputy prime minister, wants to replace Yingluck’s caretaker administration with an unelected council that would rewrite electoral rules to erase the influence of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, whose allies have won the past five elections. The Democrats have lost every national poll over the past two decades and plan to boycott the vote.

The government imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok Jan. 22 after an escalation of violence that has killed 10 people and injured more than 570 since protests began Oct. 31, according to figures compiled by the Bangkok Emergency Medical Center. Suthep has refused offers from Yingluck to negotiate and has vowed to maintain a blockade of major Bangkok intersections that began Jan. 13 until she resigns.

Serious Damage

The Election Commission yesterday urged the government to defer the poll for three to four months after one person was killed during early voting last weekend.

“Delaying the election won’t solve any problems,” Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanjana said at a media briefing. “People who are creating the problems didn’t say they would stop if we delay the vote. A long postponement could seriously damage the nation.”

The SET Index of stocks fell 0.1 percent to 1,270.76 as of 10:47 a.m. in Bangkok. The gauge has slumped 12 percent since the unrest began, the most among Asian benchmarks, and the baht has fallen more than 5 percent against the dollar.

“Investors are really concerned,” Viwat Techapoonpol, an investment strategist at Tisco Securities Co. in Bangkok, said by phone. “The vote will further prolong the current political crisis, which will significantly affect economic growth. This political risk has driven most investors to reduce their investments in the Thai stock market before the economic slowdown further hurts company earnings.”

The central bank unexpectedly held its key interest rate last week, even as it cut its growth forecast for 2014. The nation’s economic fundamentals are strong enough to weather “short-term risks,” Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul said.

Rice Subsidy

Yingluck’s administration also faces legal challenges, including an investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission into losses from a state rice subsidy program, which could lead to her being impeached.

The government has spent $21 billion in the past two crop years starting October 2011 buying rice from farmers at above-market rates. The program accumulated losses of 200 billion baht ($6.1 billion) a year, according to estimates from the World Bank.

The Election Commission argued that parliament won’t achieve the quorum needed to reopen even if the election goes ahead because candidates in some southern provinces were unable to register for the poll amid the blockade by protesters. The commission refused to allow candidates to register at alternative locations including local police stations.

‘Different View’

“Parliament can’t be opened for at least three to four months after the election if we are lucky, or longer if we are not,” Commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn said after meeting Yingluck yesterday. “The EC will go ahead with the election because the government has a different view.”

The Constitutional Court ruled Jan. 24 that the vote could be delayed and that Yingluck and the commission have the power to set a new date. The government has said there is no precedent for setting a new election date unless a court annuls the results of a poll, and its only option is to proceed.

About two million people who couldn’t access polling stations on Jan. 26 for advance voting in 83 constituencies because of protests will need to vote again after the general election, Somchai said.

“The EC will do the best we can,” he said. “We have warned the government that violence may occur and there may be problems with the election result. The government needs to take responsibility for this.”

Final Push

The government has argued that disruptions to early voting occurred in Bangkok and in some southern provinces, and more than 90 percent of the country remains unaffected by protests.

As Suthep’s campaign to shut down central Bangkok enters a third week, he called on supporters to wage a final push during the election to oust Yingluck.

The protesters, mostly middle-class Bangkokians and Democrat party supporters from southern provinces, accuse Yingluck of being a puppet for Thaksin, who faces a two-year jail term for corruption if he returns in a case he says was politically motivated. They argue reform is needed because Thaksin and his allies are corrupt and their populist policies damage the economy while allowing them to secure an electoral majority.

“We need to fight harder to end this battle as soon as possible because prolonging it could cause significant damage to the economy,” Suthep said. “We hope to end the fight and achieve our goal of setting up a new political reform council soon. The time is near.”

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