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Thai government announces it will go ahead with Sunday election despite protests, boycott

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BANGKOK - Thailand's government announced Tuesday it will go ahead with an election this weekend despite an opposition boycott, months of street protests and the likelihood of more violence in the country's political crisis.

The government made the announcement after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra met with the Election Commission, which had sought a delay in the polls.

The decision to hold Sunday's parliamentary balloting will further inflame tensions and chances of violence. A protest leader was killed and about a dozen others were injured in a clash last Sunday as protesters swarmed dozens of polling stations to stop advance voting. Since Nov. 30, 10 people have died and at least 577 have been injured.

Anti-government protesters occupying parts of Bangkok are demanding that Yingluck step down before any election, and that she be replaced by a non-elected interim government that would institute reforms to remove her family's influence from politics. The opposition Democrat Party, which backs the protests, is boycotting the election.

The crisis pits followers and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra against each other. Thaksin, a billionaire who is Yingluck's older brother, was deposed by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of corruption and abuse of power, and since then the two sides have been engaged in a sometimes violent struggle for power.

Yingluck's supporters, including many people in the countryside who benefited from Thaksin's populist policies, are demanding that they be allowed to vote.

"The longer this crisis goes on, the more dangerous it becomes," said Chris Baker, a Bangkok-based political analyst and writer. "The economy is clearly suffering already. It will suffer more the longer it goes on. The chances of violence keep increasing because emotions are getting stoked up."

Several hundred protesters laid siege to Tuesday's meeting between Yingluck and the Election Commission.

Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn said more violence was likely during the polls and would further damage the country.

"I think Thailand has suffered enough and no one should be hurt or die from this election," Somchai told reporters.

Somchai earlier said he would tell Yingluck about the problems involved with Sunday's election, including a lack of manpower and equipment that has yet to reach many provinces. The disruptions have been caused by the protesters, and some senior government officials have accused the commission of supporting the anti-government side.

Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana said the commission and the government had different views and the election would therefore go ahead. A court ruled last week that the election could only be postponed by mutual agreement between the prime minister and the Election Commission.

"If we postpone the election, will the problems go away? The people who are causing trouble didn't say they would stop if it's postponed," Pongthep said. "The longer it is postponed, the more damage it will cause the people and the country."

Some protesters pushed their way onto the compound of the Army Club, where the meeting was held. They did not enter any buildings, which were guarded by police and soldiers.

On the street outside, a shooting took place under murky circumstances. One man was hospitalized with a serious bullet wound in the stomach, Ramathibodi Hospital nurse Karn Chulaphan said. Another man, apparently an undercover policeman who reportedly wielded a gun, was savagely beaten by a mob of protesters. There was no word on his condition.

The sequence of events was unclear.

A statement posted on the Facebook page of the government's Center for Maintaining Peace and Order said a team of police investigators had been observing the protest when a group of protest guards attacked one of them and tried to snatch away his gun.

The protesters are seeking to stop the government from operating, and have occupied major intersections in Bangkok and closed down many government buildings.

Increased protest-related violence spurred the government last week to declare a state of emergency covering Bangkok and surrounding areas. The measure allows curtailment of many normal civil liberties and criminalizes many of the activities carried out by the protesters, but no substantive action has yet been taken.

Protesters are likely to try to block the voting on Sunday. If the election fails to fill 95 per cent of the lower house seats, Parliament will be unable to convene, and new efforts will be made to hold elections in the affected areas.

Yingluck and her ruling Pheu Thai party also face several lawsuits relating to alleged corruption and that could eventually force them from office. Findings of irregularities in the polls could also lead to the election results being nullified.

___

Associated Press writers Jinda Wedel and Grant Peck contributed to this report.

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