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Thai protest leaders object to election timing


An anti-government "red shirt" protester sits next to a defaced portrait of Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in the main shopping district in Bangkok April 18, 2010. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
An anti-government "red shirt" protester sits next to a defaced portrait of Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in the main shopping district in Bangkok April 18, 2010. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

By Ambika Ahuja and Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters in Thailand objected on Tuesday to proposed November elections, casting in doubt a government peace overture to end a two-month crisis that has paralyzed the economy.

Protest leaders, who had demanded an immediate poll, said they had agreed to enter into a reconciliation process proposed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, but took issue with his offer for a general election on November 14 and said they were not ready to leave their fortified encampment in central Bangkok.

They said Abhisit did not have authority to set an election date and urged him instead to propose a timetable for dissolving parliament -- a technicality analysts said could give the protesters an opportunity to seek a better offer.

The timing of elections is the most contentious issue in the plan floated by Abhisit on Monday to end a standoff in which 27 people were killed last month and nearly 1,000 wounded.

"We have agreed unanimously to enter the reconciliation process. We don't want any more loss of lives," said Veera Musikapong, chairman of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, known as the "red shirts."

"We are suspicious about the timeframe, which is within the power of the election commission and not the prime minister," he told thousands of supporters at the barricaded site they have occupied since April 3 in Bangkok's main commercial district.

ELECTION TIMING CRITICAL

The red shirts broadly back former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist multimillionaire who lives in self-imposed exile after his ouster in a 2006 military coup and subsequent conviction for graft.

The timing of when Abhisit dissolves parliament and holds an election is critical. Analysts say both sides want to be in power in September for a reshuffle of the powerful military and police forces, and passing of the national budget.

If Thaksin's camp prevails and is governing at the time of the military reshuffle, analysts expect big changes including the ousting of generals allied with Thailand's royalist elite, a prospect royalists fear could diminish the power of the monarchy.

"We want Abhisit to come back to us with a clear parliamentary dissolution date instead of an election date and we will meet and consider it again," another protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, told Reuters.

The protesters showed no signs of leaving their 3 sq km (1.2 sq-mile) tented camp in the upscale shopping district. Asked if they would depart on Wednesday, protect leader Jaran Dittapichai said: "No, no, not yet. We cannot just leave immediately."

STOCKS RISE

The red shirts were likely pushing for an earlier date to dissolve parliament, said independent political scientist Sukhum Nuansakum. "The red shirts are turning the reconciliation offer to their advantage and milking it as much as possible."

Their leaders took turn on the stage criticizing the government for "divisive policies" -- from labeling them "terrorists" to accusing the movement of harboring republicans. They said they would fight those charges.

Earlier on Tuesday, Thailand's benchmark stock index jumped 4.4 percent as investors focused on a possible end to a stalemate that shattered tourism and hurt foreign investment in one of Southeast Asia's most promising emerging markets.

An end to the impasse could reignite a rally in Thai stocks, which jumped 15 percent on a $1.8 billion wave of foreign buying from mid-February to April 9, a day before a gun battle in the heart of old Bangkok that killed 25 people and led to a reversal in stock prices as Thailand's tourism industry withered.

Thai markets are closed for a holiday on Wednesday.

The protesters say Abhisit, who is backed by the royalist establishment, lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a parliamentary vote 17 months ago heading a coalition cobbled together with military help.

Abhisit had previously offered to dissolve parliament in December, about a year before his term ends.

In a televised statement on Monday, Abhisit set five broad conditions for reconciliation that must be agreed before any election.

The first was that the revered Thai monarchy should not be dragged into politics or "violated." That follows government accusations some "red shirts" aim to overthrow the monarchy.

The other proposals call for reforms to address social injustice -- a key red shirt grievance -- an independent body to monitor media bias, an inquiry into recent political violence and reforms that could include constitutional amendments and a review of a five-year ban on politicians allied with Thaksin.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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