By Martin Petty
BANGKOK, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Thailand's ruling Puea Thai kicked off its campaign on Saturday for a February election that anti-government protesters, who plan more mass rallies, are determined to sabotage as part of efforts to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Puea Thai is likely to win the Feb. 2 election because of the populist legacy of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother and former premier, whose influence from self-imposed exile has enraged his opponents and plunged the divided country into all-too-familiar turmoil.
Thousands of Puea Thai supporters gathered in a Bangkok suburb on Saturday to celebrate the campaign launch. They are among millions in the populous north and northeast loyal to Thaksin and his family because of his pro-poor policies and a major reason why the party has won every ballot since 2001.
The prospect of Thaksin, 64, controlling another government has alarmed protesters, who plan to shut down Bangkok and scuttle the vote. They will resume rallies every other day from Sunday to re-energise supporters ahead of a campaign from Jan. 13 to occupy undisclosed sites and dent Yingluck's credibility.
They want to force a poll delay, as well as her resignation, and install an appointed administration of "good people", a course Yingluck says is unconstitutional and cannot be allowed.
Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, a relative of Thaksin, urged the public to shun the rallies.
"Those who want to join the mass rally to shut down Bangkok, they need to think thoroughly because it will cause damage to the country," he said in a televised address on Saturday, adding that "strict measures" would be used. He did not elaborate.
Security officials said such measures would include the deployment of some 20,000 police and 20 companies of troops.
Thailand's Election Commission, which previously asked for the poll to be postponed, got behind the government on Friday when it declared the Feb. 2 vote would go ahead and that its members would not resign, as it had earlier suggested.
Eight of 77 provinces have so far had registration disrupted by protesters. They are in southern Thailand, where anti-Thaksin sentiment thrives and support is strong for the pro-establishment Democrat Party, which will boycott the election.
Political tension has gripped Thailand since November, when protests swelled in response to Puea Thai's push for an amnesty bill that would have expunged Thaksin's 2008 graft conviction.
That put an abrupt end to two years of relative calm. Yingluck's government is now in a precarious position and even an election win may not guarantee its survival.
Two previous Puea Thai governments were targeted not only by protests but judicial and military intervention - direct and indirect - which its supporters blamed on a tight-knit network of royalists, generals and conservatives who see Thaksin as an arrogant opportunist who entrenched graft and nepotism.
Peaceful rallies of as many as 200,000 have taken place in the past month, as have sporadic clashes during which several people were killed by unidentified gunmen. The government fears unrest could escalate and lead to the military dictating Thailand's immediate political future instead of an election.
The coup-prone military says it does not want that. However, asked whether intervention was possible, top general Prayuth Chan-ocha said last week: "The door is neither open nor closed."
Puea Thai also faces the looming threat of complex legal cases against it that could leave Thailand in limbo. An anti-graft agency and the top court will rule whether to accept cases that implicate 381 former lawmakers, mostly Puea Thai members, accused of backing unlawful legislation. (Additional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong and Sinthana Kosolpradit; Editing by Paul Tait)
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