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Blockades Thwart Candidate Registration for Thai Election


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BANGKOK—Thai election officials Sunday struggled to register candidates for national elections slated for just over a month from now, with antigovernment protesters blockading registration centers in a bid to sabotage the contentious polls.


The blockades, which involved thousands of protesters and according to election officials halted candidate registrations in seven southern provinces, come after nearly two months of increasingly violent protests against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the perceived influence of her brother, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.


A self-made billionaire, Mr. Thaksin was ousted in a military coup seven years ago. Many of his opponents say they believe he is still running the country, using his telegenic sister Ms. Yingluck as a puppet. In recent days, political tensions in the country have escalated sharply. On Friday, army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha refused to rule out another putsch after clashes between security forces and protesters trying to stop the Feb. 2 vote left one policeman and one protester dead.


More than 140 people were injured in the clashes, and another protester was shot dead and three other persons wounded in the early hours of Saturday when an unidentified gunman fired into a protest camp in central Bangkok.


If the weekend's sieges of candidate registration centers continue until the registration period closes on Jan. 1, they potentially could delay the reopening of parliament or even void the Feb. 2 vote if fewer than 95% of the seats in the lower house are filled in the election.


Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, has vowed to prevent the election going ahead by any means possible and overthrow Ms. Yingluck's government to install an unelected council to govern this country of 67 million people. He and his supporters accuse the Shinawatra clan of hijacking Thailand's democracy with profligate populist policies to secure a large majority in the country's parliament to serve the family's own interests.


Ms. Yingluck, though, says the policies, including a multibillion-dollar rice subsidy, are designed to raise incomes in poorer rural areas, and she and her brother, Mr. Thaksin, are wildly popular in vote-rich areas of the north and northeast of the country. Opinion polls suggest their Pheu Thai Party was likely to win the Feb. 2 vote even before the opposition Democrat Party boycotted the ballot to join the antielection campaign.


Many Thais are now looking to see how the army will respond to the worsening crisis. The armed forces play an influential role in Thailand. Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, the army has launched 11 successful coups and several unsuccessful putsches. After the 2006 coup, Mr. Thaksin was convicted of corruption—a charge he dismisses as politically motivated—and fled overseas to avoid imprisonment.


Until Friday the army's top brass had repeatedly ruled out a coup. It has publicly tried to maintain neutrality between the protesters and a large pro-government grass roots movement known as the Red Shirts. At times, the army has acted as an intermediary between the two sides. Gen. Prayuth on Friday said the army had shown a "red traffic light to both sides, so things will calm down" and said the military would continue to encourage the rival factions to find a negotiated settlement to the crisis.


Mr. Suthep, who is fighting murder charges relating to the bloody dispersal of a pro-Thaksin rally when the Democrats were in power three years ago, is urging the army to take sides. Some political analysts say he and his supporters' aim is to make the country ungovernable and provoke the army to step in. "This game won't come to an end any time soon until a crisis is created and maintained," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies. "I'm afraid we might see more sacrifices in terms of human lives before things will get better."


Already, the military's patience appears to be wearing thin as the violence grows and the toll on Thailand's economy mounts. On Friday, its baht currency hit a fresh three-year low against the dollar. "Whether [a coup] is going to happen, time will tell," Gen. Prayuth said Friday.


 


—Wilawan Watcharasakwet contributed to this article.


 


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