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Thai road protest could lead to political dead end

Saturday - 1/11/2014, 12:20pm  ET

In this Nov. 11, 2013 photo, anti-government protesters gather to listen speeches at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand. Anti-government protesters are planning to shut down Thailand's capital on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 by blocking traffic at key intersections, providing a fitting metaphor for the country's politics: no way forward, no backing out. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

JINDA WEDEL
Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) -- Anti-government protesters are planning to shut down Thailand's capital on Monday by blocking traffic at key intersections, providing a fitting metaphor for the country's politics: no way forward, no backing out.

"Crisis Deepens," read a big headline in the Bangkok Post newspaper. "Poll boycott draws nation into uncharted territory."

That was Feb. 28, 2006, when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was seeking to defuse protests against his rule by calling early elections, and the opposition Democrat Party refused to take part. In September that year, the army deposed Thaksin in a coup.

Eight years later, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra -- billionaire Thaksin's sister -- has called early elections to defuse anti-government protests, and the opposition Democrat Party is again boycotting the polls.

The protesters planning to tie up traffic in Bangkok on Monday are demanding that Yingluck and her caretaker government step down and freeze elections for up to two years, during which time an interim "People's Council" -- which they apparently would appoint -- would implement reforms to fight corruption and put an end to money politics.

Tensions are high, with eight people killed over the past two months in connection with the protests. The demonstrators have engaged in running street battles with police, cut off water and electricity to national police headquarters, and forcibly occupied the compounds of several other government agencies. Several drive-by shootings have taken place near their main encampment, the latest one leaving seven protesters injured Saturday morning.

The demonstrators' slogan is "Reform before election," but their agenda really is "Stop Thaksin, again." It reflects the reality that Yingluck is acting as a stand-in for her brother, who is calling the shots from exile, where he fled in 2008 to avoid a jail term for a corruption conviction.

The political crisis could play out several ways.

One scenario is a military coup. The protesters -- headed by the so-called People's Democratic Reform Committee -- clearly hope to trigger enough chaos to force the army to take over to restore order.

The military is noted for having staged about a dozen successful coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. As recently as Tuesday, army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha refused to rule out the possibility of another.

The 2006 coup against Thaksin was a bloodless one, but it was followed up by an inept interim government and triggered the violent polarization that has dogged Thai politics ever since.

Another possibility for the current crisis is a so-called judicial coup. Several cases are pending in the courts and the country's independent oversight agencies -- all tilting heavily against the Shinawatras' political machine -- that could see Yingluck's party thrown out of office and its members barred from politics. The key bodies are stacked with figures who were opposed to Thaksin and appointed by the unelected government after the 2006 coup.

In a situation where the government has an overwhelming electoral mandate, the court is "the last fortress of the establishment and the authoritarians," said Thamrongsak Lertpetchanan, a political scientist at Rangsit University.

In another scenario, the Feb. 2 elections would take place as scheduled. But if candidates who were blocked from registering by protesters are unable to run, seats in their constituencies will be empty, making it impossible to meet a quorum in Parliament.

If Parliament is not convened, a caretaker government would remain in place, unable to initiate laws or treaties, pass a budget, or carry out most functions of government. Such a crisis would increase pressure for it to be replaced, by force or even royal intervention under vague clauses of the constitution that have never been invoked.

The 2006 coup sparked years of sometimes violent struggle for political power between Thaksin's supporters and opponents, hitting its nadir in 2010 when an army crackdown on pro-Thaksin demonstrators led to the deaths of 90 people.

The so-called Red Shirts who came out then on Thaksin's behalf proved their mettle in Bangkok's streets, and their leaders are promising that they would resist a new coup, raising the prospect of fresh violence.

Thaksin commands overwhelming support in Thailand's less well-off rural areas, where voters are grateful for his populist programs, such as virtually free health care. Pro-Thaksin parties have easily won every national election since 2001.

"These people will come out to support us," Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told foreign journalists Friday.

He said they were avoiding confrontations in the hope that the situation will calm down, but that if anything happens to the government, they will rise up.

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