BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's interim prime minister expressed hope on Monday that February's annulled general election could be re-run soon, and said anti-government protesters would not succeed in getting the Senate to impose an alternative premier.
Ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's caretaker government has remained in office since the Constitutional Court ordered her and nine ministers to step down last week in a nepotism case.
That followed six months of political turmoil in Bangkok, the latest phase of a nearly decade-long struggle between former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother who was overthrown by the army in 2006, and the royalist establishment.
Before being forced out, Yingluck had agreed with the Election Commission to hold an election on July 20, although the date has not been ratified by the king.
Caretaker Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan told foreign media the government would meet the commission on Wednesday to decide the best date.
"Hopefully, we will have an election soon but it may slip, depending on the meeting," he said. "I can't guarantee the election will be successful, but I have high hopes."
Protesters intent on removing Yingluck, who they viewed as a proxy for her self-exiled brother, disrupted the vote in February and the Constitutional Court later annulled it.
PROTESTERS WANT "NEUTRAL" PM
Now Yingluck is gone, the protesters want a "neutral" prime minister to oversee electoral reforms aimed at keeping the Shinawatras out of power, and have said they will scupper any vote that takes place before those changes are brought in.
But Niwatthamrong, who served as deputy prime minister and commerce minister under Yingluck and was previously a senior executive in one of Thaksin's company's, said the election should take place first.
"We cannot stop the election, that is against the law," he said. "We can have elections first and then reforms."
Former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin won huge support in the north and northeast with populist policies that favoured the rural poor, but was increasingly seen as a challenge to the Bangkok-based royalist establishment.
Derided by his opponents as a corrupt crony capitalist who manipulates elections with his wealth, he has chosen to live abroad to avoid a 2008 jail sentence for graft that he says was politically motivated. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister in a government run by the pro-establishment Democrat Party, has called on the upper house Senate, the judiciary and Election Commission to step in and appoint a new prime minister.
Niwatthamrong said that would not happen.
"There are a lot of steps they have to do first. They can try but I don't believe they will be successful," he said.
Newly elected Senate Speaker Surachai Liengboonlertchai called a special session on Monday to look at ways out of what he called the country's biggest crisis.
"We will discuss how to draw up a road map to get Thailand out of this situation," he said. "A neutral prime minister has not yet been discussed as part of the road map."
"NOT PLANNING A COUP"The military, which has intervened frequently in politics in the past, has stayed out this time despite calls from some pro-establishment forces for it to oust the pro-Thaksin government.
"Military heads have never mentioned a neutral prime minister and this is not something they plan to get involved in," Winthai Suvaree, a spokesman for the army, told Reuters.
"The military is not planning to stage a coup and it will let politicians sort the country's problems out."
Thailand has seen nine military coups since 1946, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej assumed the throne. The king, who is 86, has intervened to defuse previous crises but has not commented directly since this one blew up.
Rival supporters are staging sit-in protests at various places in and on the outskirts of Bangkok, raising fears of violence. Twenty-five people have been killed in sporadic violence since this round of protests kicked off in November.
Whilst vowing to remain aloof, military leaders have said they could be forced to step in if the violence were to worsen.
Pro-government "red shirt" activists are demanding a new election as soon as possible.
"Appointing a so-called neutral, unelected prime minister is against the law and, I warn you, it will provoke a violent reaction," red shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan told Reuters.
"Thai people know their rights - they are now politically savvy and will not accept a puppet premier chosen by the elite."
Anti-government protesters started moving from a city park on Monday to a site in front of the United Nations' regional headquarters and nearer many ministries.
"For those joining our final offensive be prepared to stay until we prevail," Suthep told his supporters on Sunday night.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)