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September 24, 2017

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Thailand ruling party launches election bid amid protests

BANGKOK--Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's party on Saturday kicked off campaigning for February elections in the face of an opposition boycott and protester plans to "shut down" Bangkok in a bid to derail the vote.

The Puea Thai party launched its re-election bid with rallies in its northern heartlands and on the outskirts of the capital, which has been shaken by weeks of sometimes violent anti-government demonstrations that have left eight people dead and about 400 wounded.

"I am confident that the campaign will go smoothly — we are not the ones triggering conflict," said party leader Jarupong Ruangsuwan, adding that the party's election slogan would urge people to vote to "preserve democracy."

Yingluck called snap elections after coming under intense pressure from protesters vowing to rid the country of the influence of her brother — controversial former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who is widely believed to control her party from self-exile in Dubai.

Demonstrators, who have vowed to disrupt the election on Feb. 2, want Thai democracy to be suspended for a year or more, with a "people's council" installed to implement loosely defined reforms.

Protesters plan to occupy Bangkok from Jan. 13 in the run up to the poll, vowing to prevent government officials from going to work and to cut off power and water to official buildings.

They also plan several marches in the capital starting from Sunday to build momentum ahead of the occupation attempt.

Thailand has been periodically convulsed by political bloodshed since Thaksin was overthrown by royalist generals in a coup in 2006.

The current rallies, led by a former opposition MP, erupted over a now-shelved amnesty plan that could have allowed the former leader to return.

Thailand's main opposition Democrat Party, which has not won an elected majority in two decades, support the rallies and have opted to boycott the election.

As campaigning began Saturday, several thousand Puea Thai supporters gathered in a field on the outskirts of Bangkok, one of five party rally locations.

Yingluck's government still enjoys strong support and would be expected to win.

The country's election commission, whose call to postpone the polls was rejected by the government, said on Friday the vote was expected to go ahead.

But doubts remain over whether a government could be formed, even if the election proceeds.

Demonstrators have prevented candidates from registering for the polls in several opposition-dominated southern provinces, which could result in a situation in which there are not enough elected members of parliament after the vote to select a prime minister.

Thai stocks and the baht currency have fallen sharply on concerns that the deepening crisis will scare off foreign tourists and discourage international investment.

Former Premier Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, said the current demonstrations could potentially be more damaging than those that led to his expulsion from power in 2008, when opposition protesters paralysed Bangkok's main airports.

"They don't want an election. They want to overthrow government. It is dangerous," he told AFP.

A number of foreign governments have advised their nationals to avoid the current protest sites.

The protest movement have pledged not to disrupt the airports.

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