Thailand's interim prime minister will meet the Election Commission on Wednesday, in the hope of fixing a date for polls that the government sees as the best way out of the country's protracted crisis but its opponents will probably reject.
Six months of anti-government protests have brought sporadic violence to the streets of Bangkok, threatened to tip the economy into recession and even raised fears of civil war. The crisis is the latest phase in nearly 10 years of hostility between the royalist establishment and Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecommunications billionaire who won huge support among the rural and urban poor but angered the Bangkok-based elite and was deposed by the military in a 2006 coup.
Last week, the Constitutional Court threw Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's younger sister, and nine of her cabinet ministers out of office for abuse of power. But the remaining ministers selected a new premier and the caretaker government is hoping for a July 20 election that Yingluck's Puea Thai Party would probably win, given the enduring popularity of her brother.
The Election Commission, which has been accused of sympathising with the protest movement, said it was unsure whether polls could be held on July 20, as it had earlier tentatively agreed with Yingluck. It is also unclear whether acting Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan has the authority to issue a decree for a new election date. "We may have to postpone the July election because the political situation has not stabilised yet and we are running out of time to organise it," Phuchong Nutawong, the commission's secretary general, told Reuters.
"Today, we'll discuss whether acting premier Niwatthamrong can issue a decree to be endorsed by the king." Niwatthamrong told foreign media on Monday the election date might have to be pushed back. But for the government, an election is the only way forward. Its opponents, on the other hand, are almost bound to boycott and disrupt it, as they did with an election in February and that led to the vote being declared void.
Thaksin has lived in self-exile to avoid a jail term for a 2008 conviction for graft, but remains a huge political influence. He or his loyalists have won every election since 2001, but his enemies attribute his success to money politics and want reforms of the electoral system by an appointed "people's council" before another vote.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister in a government led by the pro-establishment Democrat Party, is pushing the upper house Senate to appoint an interim prime minister to oversee the reforms aimed at ending Thaksin's influence. But the government says it still has a mandate and its legions of rural-based "red shirt" supporters have warned of violence if the government is deposed.
One undercurrent of a crisis that is increasingly dividing rich and poor is deep anxiety over the issue of royal succession. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, is 86 years old and spent the years from 2009 to 2013 in hospital. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn does not command the same devotion as his father, but some Thaksin supporters have recently been making a point of their loyalty to the prince. Thousands of anti-government demonstrators are camped out on streets near parliament, where the Senate is trying to draft a "road map" out of the crisis.
Some analysts are warning that the crisis could trigger a military coup. "The game plan of the anti-government protesters is to install their own prime minister. If this happens the pro-government side will not accept it and conflict will break out and force the military to intervene," said political analyst Kan Yuenyong at the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank. The army has a long record of intervening in politics, but military chiefs have stayed aloof from this crisis, insisting that politicians must sort out the dispute.