January 19, 2019 / 12:34 PM / 5 months ago

Rival groups demonstrate in Thailand as election tensions grow

(The January 19 story corrects last paragraph to say coronation will be first in living memory for most Thais, but not all.)

A placard mocking Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha as Pinocchio is seen as activists hold up candles while gathering to demand quick elections to end military rule at a university in Bangkok, Thailand, January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Rival groups held demonstrations in Thailand’s capital on Saturday, with hundreds of people demanding quick elections to end military rule and a much smaller group of pro-junta supporters saying it was too soon for a vote.

The competing protests were tiny compared to those that paralyzed Bangkok in 2014 before the army seized power in the name of ending instability, but were an indication of the tensions in the run-up to a long-delayed ballot.

No date has been set for an election which was first promised for 2015 and most recently postponed from Feb. 24.

Hundreds joined a demonstration calling for elections on March 10.

“We’re calling for elections as soon as possible,” activist Sirawith Seritiwa told the crowd.

The junta has said the most recent election delay is because of scheduling difficulties with planning for the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in early May - although it has said it still wants the ballot held before those ceremonies.

The Election Commission of Thailand has given March 10 or March 24 as possible polling dates, but no date has been set and a royal decree must be issued before it can be.

Some 1 km (0.6 miles) from the demonstration calling for elections, around 30 counter-protesters gathered with placards at the Democracy Monument. They said they were not opposed to a ballot, but national unity must come first.

“We can wait for elections,” the group’s leader, Jathurun Bunbenjara, told reporters. “We don’t agree with protests that create chaos... We want to see Thais come together and hold an auspicious and great coronation.”

Thailand’s longstanding political divide is between strongly royalist and pro-military conservatives and “red shirt” populists linked to exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who have won every election since 2001.

Despite measures by the junta to entrench the ruling generals’ hold on power after any election, opinion polls have shown that Thaksin’s supporters remain politically strong.

Activist Sirawith denied that the group intended to create chaos ahead of the coronation - saying that holding elections earlier would reduce that danger.

For most people it will be the first Thai coronation in living memory. The king’s revered late father reigned for more than 70 years until his death in 2016.

Additional reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Ros Russell

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