By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai government supporters welcomed on Thursday the prospect of a July election and said the Election Commission had to prevent disruption by anti-government protesters who insist that reforms are brought in before any vote.
The government and Election Commission agreed on Wednesday to hold a general election on July 20 but there are doubts an orderly vote can be held or can end a long-running political crisis and restore investor confidence.
"We are all for a July election but anything is possible," said Thanawut Wichaidit, a spokesman for the pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. "Protesters could block the polls and the result could be nullified again."
A February 2 election was held after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament in December in response to street protests aimed at ousting her.
But the main opposition party boycotted the polls and protesters prevented voting in 28 constituencies. A court nullified the election in March citing a law that requires voting be held on the same day across the country.
"The commission has said it will prevent a repeat of disruptions to voting and it must stick to that promise," Thanawut said.
Thailand has been gripped by political upheaval since 2006 when a military coup removed Yingluck's brother, then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin has huge support from the poor rural and urban voters but faces opposition from the royalist establishment and Bangkok middle class who see the populist former telecoms tycoon as a threat to their interests.
The overriding aim of the anti-government protesters is to eliminate once and for all the influence of Thaksin, who they say is the power behind his sister's government even though he lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence handed down in 2008 for abuse of power.
Parties led by or allied to Thaksin have won every election since 2001 and the protesters want reform unelected "people's council" to oversee electoral system to end his dominance.
Yingluck has dismissed calls to step down but could be removed from office through legal cases against her set to conclude this month.
Adding to doubts about a July vote, Election Commission secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong said the government had agreed to change the date if "unexpected circumstances" arise.
Christian Lewis, a Southeast Asia specialist at political risk consultants Eurasia Group, said a July 20 vote was unlikely.
"Yingluck faces such a strong challenge in the courts. If she and her cabinet are removed, the polls aren't going to happen on this schedule," Lewis told Reuters.
"By invalidating the polls last month, the courts provided Yingluck's opponents with a blueprint to obstruct future elections. Simply put, it set a dangerous precedent."
The protesters have at various stages blocked thoroughfares in Bangkok, forced ministries to close and clashed with police, scaring off tourists, denting business confidence and damaging Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.
The central bank has warned that the economy could contract in the first quarter compared with the previous three months and some economists fear the country could slip into recession unless the deadlock is broken and a new government installed.
Opposition leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has declined to say if his Democrat Party would take part in a July vote, and is instead pushing a mediation effort.
He said on Thursday he would announce a plan to solve the crisis, what he calls an exit strategy for Thailand, in coming days. He said if all sides accepted his plan, he would not run in the election but would remain impartial.
"I will not take any political position to show that I will simply be a citizen that supports reforms," Abhisit said in a statement posted on Facebook.
It is not clear if members of his Democrat Party will run.
Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a deputy prime minister under Abhisit, has called for a "final battle" starting from May 14 to oust Yingluck.
"This is it, my friends. The ultimate uprising for the good of our motherland and future generations," Suthep told his supporters in a Bangkok park on Wednesday.
"Red shirt" supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck have vowed to defend the caretaker premier if she is removed and are planning a big rally on the outskirts of Bangkok on May 5 ahead of the legal decisions. The anti-government protesters are planning a rally in the city that same day raising fears of a clash.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)