BANGKOK — Thailand’s Election Commission urged the government to delay a February poll after protesters tried to storm a Bangkok arena where candidates were registering, sparking a riot that killed one person and injured 97.
“Violence could intensify if the election is held as planned, which would cause unrest, chaos, riots and loss of life and bloodshed,” Election Commission Chairman Supachai Somcharoen said. “If conflicts remain, an election cannot take place in peaceful and orderly atmosphere.”
The announcement may bolster protesters seeking to stop the Feb. 2 vote so an appointed council can rewrite rules to prevent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s family from returning to power. Allies of her brother Thaksin Shinawatra have won the past five elections, including two since his ouster in a 2006 coup, prompting protests from opponents led by former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban who say he’s a threat to Thailand’s monarchy.
The unrest has claimed six lives in the past two months, including a police officer who died yesterday.
“The government is now being pressured by the increasingly violent protesters on the one hand and now by the decision of the Election Commission,” Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at New-York based Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, said by phone. “This sends a very bad and worrying message for the future of democracy in Thailand.”
Yingluck dissolved parliament on Dec. 9 in a bid to ease tensions, triggering new polls that by royal decree are scheduled for Feb. 2.
Earlier Wednesday, Supachai and other election commissioners were evacuated from the stadium by helicopter as the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators seeking to break into the sports complex.
“It’s clear that this is not a peaceful protest as claimed by Suthep,” Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, who is overseeing the government response to the demonstrations, said in televised remarks. “This is a protest that invades, threatens and destroys government assets, which is against the law. They are also obstructing the electoral process.”
The protesters, closely aligned with the main opposition Democrat party, say Yingluck’s government is illegitimate and run from abroad by Thaksin, who faces a two-year jail term for corruption if he returns in a case he says is politically motivated.
Yingluck’s offers to negotiate with the protesters have been refused. She has ruled out resigning to make way for the unelected council, saying the roughly 16 million people who voted for her in 2011 should be allowed to choose the nation’s political future at the ballot box.
The protesters said a postponement was unacceptable because the election would still take place and Yingluck would remain in power as the caretaker prime minister.
“Instead, what the Election Commission should do is declare the scheduled elections null and void,” Sathit Wongnongtoei, one of the protest leaders and a Democrat party member, told supporters. He didn’t say how that would be legally possible.
The Election Commission didn’t say how the government could legally delay the election, which under the constitution must be held no later than 60 days after the dissolution of parliament. The head of the government’s legal arm, Chukiat Rattanachaicharn, said earlier this month that any move to change the election date would be unconstitutional.
Demonstrators this week blockaded the stadium where political parties must apply for the election. At least 34 parties managed to apply, including all of the major parties except the Democrat party, which hasn’t won a national election since 1992 and is boycotting the vote. Prior to yesterday, police at the stadium had sought to avoid a confrontation.
With representatives from the political parties inside the arena to draw ballot numbers yesterday, police warned that tear gas would be fired if demonstrators kept trying to breach the gates.
That sparked hours of confrontations in which police fired rubber bullets and tear gas while protesters — some wearing gas masks or plastic bags over their heads — threw the canisters back, along with rocks and other objects.
Yingluck has said she doesn’t want to see a repeat of the events of 2010, when supporters loyal to her brother took to Bangkok’s streets to call for new elections. The Democrat party, which came to power in a parliamentary vote after a Thaksin- allied party was disbanded, called in the military to use live ammunition to put down the protest. More than 90 people were killed in the violence.
“Every political group in Thailand has resorted to violence to achieve their goal,” Sunai said. “And now they move their goal up to another level: That is to use thuggery to disrupt the election process, which is a key ingredient in a democracy.”
© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.