Rivals brace for war of attrition

Rivals brace for war of attrition

ANALYSIS: PDRC grows increasingly desperate, while government tries to ignore the provocations

Both sides of the ongoing political standoff appear to be settling in for a battle of attrition as the Feb 2 election looms.

The poll date marks a key deadline in the months-long struggle, as the government attempts to limp through to the election in a bid to legitimise its standing, while the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protest group appears to be growing increasingly desperate in its city shutdown campaign.

Speaking on the Asok protest stage yesterday, PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban vowed to close all government offices in the coming days, and threatened to "detain" the prime minister and all members of her cabinet and cut power and water to their homes.

"I think they [cabinet ministers] should send their children and spouses elsewhere," Mr Suthep warned.

He also revealed the caretaker government had offered to postpone the election until May 4 if the PDRC agrees to call off its shutdown campaign.

Mr Suthep refused to reveal who had presented the offer, but sources said the government had sent caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Phongthep Thepkanchana to negotiate.

Mr Suthep told the Asok crowd: "We will carry on this fight to the end. If we do not win, we will not quit. We will not go home empty handed."

He reiterated his demand that caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her cabinet resign, a neutral prime minister be named, and an unelected "people's council" be formed to carry out national reform before an election is held.

Mr Suthep's threat to detain Ms Yingluck prompted the premier's security team to tighten her protection measures.

Reporters have now been barred from following Ms Yingluck, and the weekly cabinet meeting yesterday was cancelled.

For the government, the strategy is simply to hold on until the Feb 2 election, which the Pheu Thai Party is all but guaranteed to win. A landslide election win would legitimise the new government, which would again be led by Ms Yingluck.

The premier remained defiant yesterday amid continued calls from protesters for her to stand down.

"I am not attached to my position," Ms Yingluck said. "I am not staying to safeguard my political stability. I am doing my duty to safeguard democracy because democracy belongs to the Thai people."

But the Feb 2 election seems a long way from being a certainty at this stage, despite being less than three weeks away.

Caretaker Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng admitted to the Bangkok Post last night the government has few options to effectively respond to the PDRC's moves.

"The Election Commission's position [to delay the election] shows that it does not want to organise the Feb 2 election at all," he said. "And it's possible that on the day there will not be any polling booths ready."

Mr Chaturon said "a few hundred thousand protesters" does not constitute a majority in the country, and the demonstrators cannot justifiably oust an elected government.

Many academics have also openly disagreed with Mr Suthep's plan for a people's council, he noted.

"No member of this cabinet will resign," Mr Chaturon declared.

However, the minister noted that a military coup "might become unavoidable" as a compromise with the PDRC looks increasingly unlikely.

But he stressed that such a move would set the country back decades.

Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has been trying to remain neutral throughout the political conflict, though has recently been wavering in his earlier assurances there would not be a coup.

But it is widely known the so-called Burapha Payak (Tigers of the East) group of army officers, to which Gen Prayuth belongs, favour Mr Suthep's side.

"They have been lobbying senior civil servants to stop taking orders from Ms Yingluck following the mutiny of the permanent secretary for public health who decided to back the protesters," one source claimed.

The government's position is growing increasingly precarious as it finds itself unable to command officials at the various ministries.

Even the red shirts, the government's main support base, have appeared lacklustre in their current campaign to show opposition to the PDRC in the provinces.

Green Politics Group coordinator Suriyasai Katasila also believes the military will play a key role in breaking the current political impasse, even if it does not stage an outright coup.

"I don't think Gen Prayuth will launch a coup," Mr Suriyasai said.

"But the armed forces are in a position where they have to do something, even if it's not going to be the best way out."

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