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Mounting tensions ahead of Thai election

Tensions are rising in Thailand ahead of the February 2 general election. Despite a weekend of bloody attacks, the government is sticking to the poll and has declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and nearby areas.

Under the 60-day state of emergency, set to take effect on Wednesday, January 22, security authorities will have expanded powers in terms of conducting raids and arrests, and greater immunity from prosecution.

The decree follows weeks of mass anti-government demonstrations that have paralyzed parts of the capital and triggered deadly violence, including grenade attacks and shootings.In two separate incidents on Friday and Sunday, one person was killed and almost 70 others were injured when hand grenades were thrown at rally sites filled with protesters. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, questioned whether the declaration was justified, saying the demonstrators had been peaceful.

Despite the recent developments, Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra seems determined to proceed with an election on February 2, arguing that the ballot box is the best way to resolve the country's latest political crisis.

Disrupt the vote!

But with the vote now less than two weeks away, the latest incidents have fuelled fears that the safety of voters can't be guaranteed.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

The opposition accuses Yingluck Shinawatra of being a puppet of her elder brother and former PM Thaksin

"The government is walking into its own trap," political analyst Panitan Wattanayagorn told DW. "If people can't go out and reach their polling station, that will be very destructive for the legitimacy of the election."

He says all sides in the political stand-off need "breathing space" and called on the prime minister to postpone the poll to open up fresh negotiations with her main opponents. The almost decade-long conflict between supporters of Thailand's old guard and the wealthy Shinawatra family erupted again in November when hundreds of thousands of supporters of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) took to the streets.

Protesters were incensed about a proposed amnesty bill that would have seen Thaksin – who was ousted by the military in 2006 - cleared of corruption and allowed his return to the country. The government called a snap election after street protests erupted demanding the resignation of PM Yingluck.

The main opposition Democrat Party reacted by announcing it would boycott the vote. Protesters have since prevented several candidates from registering, prompting the Election Commission to ask the government to postpone the vote.

Failed talks

Last week, Yingluck met with the Election Commission and smaller opposition parties but her main opponents were noticeably absent and no agreement was reached despite concerns about the potential struggle to maintain law and order on election day.

"The potential for violence is a real possibility." said Kim McQuay, the Thailand Country Representative for the Asia Foundation. "We're also in a situation which is likely to result in further agitation beyond election day."

McQuay told DW that the Democrat Party's boycott will also weaken the next government's mandate to run the country.

"In an ideal arrangement, the political parties of all sides would come to some sort of agreement about the conditions under which the opposition would be prepared to contest the election. I guess that would be a pre-election reform agenda," he said.

Reform plans

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban – a former senior leader of the Democrats – has vowed that once his movement forces Yingluck from office, he will suspend Thailand's "flawed" democracy and install an unelected "People's Council" to run the country.

Accusing the Thaksin "regime" of cronyism, corruption and ultra-populist policies, there's been little discussion of why he can't reform politics from within parliament.

The government has come up with its own reform plan but maintains it can only be implemented after the election. Panitan says the two sides are closer to an agreement than they would publicly admit.

Yingluck's Reform Council - part of her reform plans - would work alongside the elected government. It would likely be made up of key figures from the military, bureaucracy and business. But analysts agree it would need better representation from the whole of Thai society.

"The two sides differ only in the timing and who should push through the reform process. But the concepts of more proportional representation and the need for better, independent institutions are very much agreed upon among the different political groups," he told DW.

Anti-government protesters march during a rally in central Bangkok (Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

The protesters demand that the government hand over power to an unelected 'people's council'

Panitan believes Yingluck still has time to lead a bigger reform agenda than the PDRC. "If the government could appoint a more neutral caretaker administration and step aside during the reform period, not only would it survive, it could also be re-elected with an even bigger mandate in a year's time," he said.

Political creativity

The Asia Foundation's McQuay says that polling day may still be delayed, but believes that the government's hands are tied whatever decision it takes.

"Historically, there has been a lot of space for legal challenges in Thai politics, so I wouldn't discount that the election date may be changed. But if the government does not proceed with the election, it could find itself under some sort of legal scrutiny or action."

Meanwhile, Yingluck has been praised for the way she has handled the protests so far. While maintaining a security presence, the government has refused to confront the demonstrators.

Last month, when protesters launched a symbolic siege of the police headquarters, several ministries and even the prime minister's residence, police were ordered to remove barricades and let the protesters in.

Soldiers wear gas masks as they stand guard at the Thai-Japan youth stadium in central Bangkok December 26, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom)

The military has so far been reluctant to intervene in the conflict

Similarly, the so-called "Red Shirts" movement - supporters of Yingluck's administration - have stayed well clear of the protest sites, reducing the chances for tensions to boil over.

"One of the great apprehensions is that if the Red Shirts and the PDRC demonstrators were to meet on the streets of Bangkok, you would have the potential for violence. But the Red Shirts have stayed in their traditional regional strongholds," said McQuay.

While turnout for the Bangkok shutdown has fallen in recent days, the PDRC has called supporters to widen the protest by blocking government offices in 14 southern provinces.

'We want to vote!'

Meanwhile a pro-election movement has begun to emerge. Several hundred people held a candlelight vigil in a Bangkok park last week demanding their democratic rights be respected.

But with a "one-sided" vote just days away, Panitan warns the government's popular support could decline if the death toll continues to rise. So far 11 people have been killed during two-and-a-half months of protests. More than 550 people have been injured.

'If they choose to go ahead with the election, more lives will be lost on the streets and the government's legitimacy will be further eroded," he said