By Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat
BANGKOK, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Thailand's Constitutional Court said it would decide on Thursday whether to accept a case against holding a Feb. 2 election that would almost certainly extend the government's shaky grip on power, as protesters kept up pressure to force it from office.
The government declared a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas from Wednesday, hoping to prevent an escalation in protests now in their third month. The emergency decree, however, failed to clear the demonstrators, though the capital has been relatively calm this week.
Nine people have been killed in outbursts of violence, including two grenade attacks in Bangkok last weekend.
On Wednesday, a leading pro-government activist was shot and wounded in Thailand's northeast, a stronghold of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in what police said may have been a political attack, adding to fears the violence could spread.
The protests are the latest eruption in a political conflict that has gripped the country for eight years.
Broadly, it pits the Bangkok middle class and royalist establishment against the mainly poorer supporters of Yingluck and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled by the military in 2006.
The Election Commission argues the country is too volatile to hold a national vote at this point and that technicalities mean it is anyway bound to result in a parliament with too few lawmakers to form a quorum.
The government says the decree to hold the election on that date has been signed by the king and cannot be changed.
A ruling in favour of the Election Commission would only deepen Thailand's political quagmire, already weighing on investor enthusiasm for Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.
The main opposition Democrat Party says it will boycott the vote. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat minister, wants democracy suspended so that a "people's council" can push through electoral and political changes.
Thais living overseas have already voted and some advance voting takes place around the country on Sunday. The protesters have said they would try to disrupt the election.
FEARS OF ELECTION VIOLENCE
On Wednesday, an unidentified gunman opened fire on Kwanchai Praipana, a leader of Thailand's pro-government "red shirt" movement and a popular radio DJ.
The attack in Udon Thani, about 450 km (280 miles) northeast of Bangkok, was the most significant violence outside the capital and illustrates the risk that the turbulence could spread to other parts of Thailand.
Just a day before, Kwanchai had warned of a nationwide fight if the military launched a coup, as widely feared.
So far the military, which has been involved in 18 actual or attempted coups in the past 81 years, has kept out of the fray. Police are charged with enforcing the state of emergency and are under orders from Yingluck to show restraint.
"We announced a state of emergency to help police do their work," Yingluck told reporters on Thursday.
"But given what happened in 2010 I don't want police to use force outside of the legal framework," she added, referring to a military crackdown that year on pro-Thaksin protesters during which scores were killed.
Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said this week his troops might have to play a bigger role if serious violence breaks out. "If such violence erupted and no one is able to solve it, the troops would have to step in and tackle it. We would look after our nation using the right methods," he told reporters.
The emergency decree gives security agencies powers to detain suspects, impose a curfew and limit gatherings. Some analysts said it was in part designed to give Yingluck legal protection if police step in.
Several governments have warned their nationals to avoid protest areas in Bangkok, among the world's most visited cities. China called on Thailand to "restore stability and order as soon as possible" through talks.