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Thailand faces escalating political risk as divisions flare

Thailand's political divisions are erupting again with just over a month to go to the first general election since a coup almost five years ago.

[BANGKOK] Thailand's political divisions are erupting again with just over a month to go to the first general election since a coup almost five years ago.

The spotlight is now on the fate of a party linked to exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra. The party, Thai Raksa Chart, saw a stunning bid to make Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya its prime ministerial candidate rapidly unravel on Feb 8 when her brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, publicly opposed the move.

The Election Commission will meet on Monday as calls grow for the party to be dissolved in a country used to treating top royals as semi-divine and apolitical. Those calls also show Thaksin remains a polarizing figure: While he has repeatedly won millions of rural votes with expanded welfare programmes, he also clashed with certain royalist military leaders who view him as a threat to their hold on power.

Disbanding Thai Raksa Chart could anger Thaksin's supporters, and boost junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha's push to stay as prime minister after the election. Mr Prayuth led the coup in 2014 that ousted Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, and is expected to have the support of the military-appointed Senate.

"It's a scary time ahead," said Punchada Sirivunnabood, assistant professor at Mahidol University's Faculty of Social Science and Humanities near Bangkok. "Recent events prove that the political polarization is still there, and is more deeply rooted in the country than before."

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Thaksin or his allies have won every election since 2001, only to be unseated by the courts or the military. Street protests, sometimes bloody, accompanied the cycle of unrest.

Activist group the Constitution Protection Association plans to petition the Election Commission about disbanding Thai Raksa Chart for violating rules that prohibit using the monarchy for election campaigning.

A member of the party, in turn, intends to submit a letter to the commission against Mr Prayuth's candidacy because he continues to have powerful executive powers as the current premier.

Mr Prayuth on Friday agreed to be the prime ministerial candidate for a new party seen as supportive of the military government. The events of the past few days may spur more of his supporters to vote, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a politics lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand.

"They will feel that they need to do it to keep Thaksin and Yingluck out of the country," Prof Titipol said.

Publicly traded companies controlled or linked to Thaksin were among the biggest decliners on the nation's stock market on Monday. Shares in real estate firm SC Asset Corp fell as much as 7 per cent, while Praram 9 Hospital Pcl slid up to 6.7 per cent. Both firms are controlled by the Shinawatra family.

The spike in political risk looms over an economy that's already feeling the effects of the trade tension between the US and China. It also comes ahead of major events, including the king's coronation in May and summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations due in Thailand this year.


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