Thailand's government on Thursday rejected calls to postpone upcoming elections as clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters left a police officer dead and nearly 100 people injured, adding to political turmoil threatening to tear apart the country.
The latest unrest took place outside a Bangkok sports stadium where election candidates were gathering to decide their positions on the ballot. Protesters threw rocks as they tried to break into the building to halt the process, while police fired tear gas and rubber bullets.
Four election commissioners left the stadium on a helicopter to escape the violence -- some of the fiercest since a long-running dispute between Thailand's bitterly divided political factions flared anew two months ago.
Protesters seeking to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra are demanding that the Feb. 2 elections be delayed until she leaves office and reforms are implemented. They have vowed to disrupt the polls if they go ahead.
Yingluck has insisted that the elections should go ahead. Many expect her party to win if the elections are held soon.
Thailand’s election commission had said in a statement that it was urging the government to consider "postponing the elections," citing the security situation. But the ruling party seemed to reject that call on Thursday.
Government officials did not immediately answer calls seeking a response.
In the past, the government has indicated that it does not have the authority to delay elections, which constitutionally must be held 45 to 60 days from the date that Parliament is dissolved.
Anti-government protests began in late October, but Thursday's violence was the first in nearly two weeks. At least 96 people were injured from both sides as protesters fought running battles with police close to the stadium. Later in the day, protesters blocked a major road leading to the smaller of Bangkok's two airports.
Police have made no move to arrest the protest movement's ringleader, Suthep Thaugsuban, who is demanding the country be led by an unelected council until reforms can be implemented. The authorities have treaded carefully, as a crackdown would likely provoke greater violence and chaos. That could give the military, which has staged 11 successful coups in the past, a pretext to intervene again.
Thailand has been wracked by political conflict since Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled by a 2006 military coup. The protesters accuse Yingluck of being a proxy for Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction but still wields influence in the country.
Thaksin or his allies have won every election since 2001 thanks to strong support in the north and northeast of the country. His supporters say he is disliked by Bangkok's elite because he has shifted power away from the traditional ruling class, which has strong links to the royal family.
On Wednesday, Yingluck announced a proposal for a national reform council to come up with a compromise to the crisis, but it was rejected by the protesters.
The country's main opposition party, which is allied with the protesters, is boycotting the elections, which Yingluck called early in hopes of giving her a fresh mandate and defusing the crisis.
The Associated Press