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Thai baht slumps as protesters seek to block election

By Pairat Temphairojana

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The Thai baht plumbed its lowest in almost four years on Monday as a political crisis grew more intractable, with anti-government protesters trying to block candidates registering for a February election that is looking increasingly uncertain.

Police estimated more than 200,000 protesters rallied across the capital on Sunday to demand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra resign. She has called a snap election for February 2 to defuse tension but the opposition Democrat Party will boycott the poll and demonstrators are determined to scuttle it.

The stalemate is all too familiar after eight years of deadlock broadly between supporters and opponents of Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon whose populist political machine has won every election since 2001 with millions of votes from the rural poor in the north and northeast.

Opposed to Thaksin is a Bangkok-based establishment of top generals and old-money families threatened by his rapid rise and angered by his ability to influence politics from self-imposed exile in Dubai. They have backed protests against Thaksin's governments since 2005 and the party they favor, the Democrats, has not won an election in 21 years.

Yingluck refuses to quit and said the Democrats' election boycott would complicate the political reforms all sides want.

"Every parliament member needs to take part in the election to protect this democratic system," she said on Sunday. "If they don't participate ... how can anything concrete be made under this legislature?"

The seemingly irresolvable conflict has hit the currency in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy after the weekend rallies that left the outcome no clearer. The baht touched a low of 32.71 to the dollar, its weakest level since March 2010, according to Thomson Reuters data.

The protesters are led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat heavyweight whose campaign is less about policy than ridding politics of the billionaire Shinawatra family.

Watched by police and soldiers, several thousand protesters sat in front of the gates of a sports stadium to try to block the registration process, which lasts until the end of the week.

By mid-morning, only nine of the 34 parties that showed up to register were successful.

Election Commission member Somchai Srisutthiyakorn said the deadline could be extended if not enough candidates had registered, while police threatened jail terms or stiff fines if protesters impeded the process.

DRUMMING UP SUPPORT

Yingluck has spent the past week travelling in her party's northern strongholds, shoring up support as her credibility in Bangkok dwindles amid persistent protests that seemed unlikely a few months ago, when even her brother's fiercest critics appeared to tolerate her government.

That all changed after a costly blunder in November, when her Puea Thai party tried to force an amnesty bill that would have nullified Thaksin's 2008 graft conviction and allowed him to return home a free man. The Senate rejected the bill and Puea Thai withdrew it, but the damage was done and protests mounted, denouncing Yingluck as Thaksin's puppet.

The influence of 64-year-old Thaksin has divided Thailand. Critics say he is a tax-dodging crony capitalist who abused his power and is disloyal to the monarchy, which he denies. But to millions of farmers and other poor outside Bangkok, Thaksin is a hero whose policies improved their lives.

Political concerns not only hit the baht on Monday, but sent Thai stocks to a 15-week low at the break, down 1.2 percent to 1,326.67 points. Trade volume was just 0.38 percent of the full-day average over the past 30 sessions.

Analysts said the bid to block the election and the unrelenting deadlock cast a pall of unease over the market.

The impasse is unlikely to end soon. While the major protests have been big in number and high on rhetoric, they have not stopped the government from functioning, prompting concerns that either the demonstrators or other protagonists might try to stir violence to unseat the government.

The Democrat Party on Saturday said it would not run in the election because Thailand's democratic system had been distorted. That would leave Puea Thai running against only smaller parties and, according to some commentators, unlikely to wean itself off Thaksin once it forms another government.

"Is there anything new we can expect from the Puea Thai Party? ... No, nothing. The party and the government will continue to be remotely controlled from Dubai," wrote Bangkok Post columnist Veera Prateepchaikul.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Martin Petty and Paul Tait; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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