BANGKOK // Thailand will hold a general election by the middle of this year, the deputy prime minister has said, setting the stage for a fierce battle for votes in the politically divided nation.
"I guarantee that it will happen before June," Suthep Thaugsuban told reporters on Thursday when asked about the timing of the keenly awaited vote.
His comments came after the passing of a mid-year budget and recent constitutional amendments, which the government had set as a prerequisite for an early election, along with peaceful conditions for the polls.
Mass protests last April and May by the Red Shirt opposition movement, which was seeking immediate elections, left more than 90 people dead in street clashes between demonstrators and armed soldiers.
Prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said last week that an election would be held in the first half of this year if there was no fresh violence.
The British-born, Oxford-educated head of the establishment Democrat Party must call a vote by the end of this year, when his term finishes.
Mr Abhisit defied sceptics last year to survive Thailand's worst political crisis in decades, and many observers expect the Democrats to cling to power for another term, possibly by forming another coalition with smaller partners.
Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political science professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University, said: "This government will be re-elected."
The main opposition party, the Puea Thai, "will get lot of votes but not enough seats to form a government, while the Democrats will gain more votes and will collaborate with its current coalition partners to stay in power", he said.
At the height of the Red Shirt crisis, Mr Abhisit proposed holding an election in November 2010 to resolve the stand-off, but shelved the plan because demonstrators refused to disperse until the army moved in.
In the months after the military broke up the rally, the capital was rattled by a string of minor explosions while it was under emergency rule.
Mr Somjai said he believed the Red Shirts had been weakened by their failure to achieve their goal last year.
"Some people disagreed with their violent way. The Red Shirts need to adjust their strategy but it will be harder for them because a new election is coming. Violence will continue but will be less severe," he said.
There is also uncertainty about whether the opposition will be able to translate strong support for the Reds, particularly in the rural northeast, into success at the ballot box.
The Red Shirts view Mr Abhisit's government as undemocratic because it came to power in a parliamentary vote in 2008 with the backing of the army after a court ruling threw out the previous administration.
The Red Shirt movement, which is broadly loyal to the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has held a series of peaceful one-day rallies in the capital in recent weeks.
Their arch-rivals, the Yellow Shirt nationalist activists, who claim allegiance to the throne, have been rallying near Government House recently in protest at Mr Abhisit's handling of a deadly border dispute with Cambodia.
The cabinet recently agreed to invoke the Internal Security Act in Bangkok to cope with the renewed political rallies.