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Thai junta and Thaksin-backed populists face off before 2019 poll

Bangkok

BATTLE lines are being drawn between Thailand's military government and the populist movement led by ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra as both sides attempt to outmanoeuvre the other before a general election due in 2019.

The junta has promised to hold the much-delayed election as early as February, a test of its promise to restore democracy amid widely held concerns that it aims to maintain a grip on power in South-east Asia's second-biggest economy.

The race is again expected to pit Mr Thaksin's "red shirt" followers against the military and royalist establishment, which seized power in successive coups in 2006 and 2014. Mr Thaksin's camp, which has won every election since 2001, has been unable to assert control over non-elected bodies, prompting bouts of street protests and coups.

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In a move widely seen as an attempt to cripple support for Mr Thaksin and his allies, the junta last month ordered the Election Commission to investigate whether he is still controlling the popular Puea Thai Party from exile abroad, and possibly disband it.

"They are afraid of us," Puea Thai veteran Watana Muangsook told Reuters, referring to the junta's efforts to undermine the influence of his party and allies. "The only way they can beat us is that they have to play beyond the rules. If they follow the rules they will lose."

The Shinawatra clan faces pressure elsewhere, too. Mr Thaksin's son, 38-year-old Panthongtae Shinawatra, was indicted last month for an alleged money-laundering offence dating back to 2004. He pleaded not guilty.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Mr Thaksin's sister and prime minister for nearly three years, fled Thailand last year to avoid conviction in a criminal negligence case she says was politically motivated. The junta has sought her extradition from Britain.

Eight core members of Puea Thai are also facing legal action for allegedly breaching a junta ban on political gatherings of more than five people.

Authorities have confiscated and banned the distribution of thousands of calendars featuring a picture of Mr Thaksin and Ms Yingluck, which were being handed out in several places in northeastern Thailand this month.

Mr Thaksin said in a rare interview with NHK TV recently "pro-democracy camps" could win some 300 of the lower house of Parliament's 500 seats in the coming election.

That comment prompted the military government to order an official probe into his links with the party. Puea Thai members deny Mr Thaksin's involvement in the running of the party and say they have been "following the law".

The junta has denied targeting Mr Thaksin and his allies, saying government agencies have been proceeding legally. REUTERS