By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - As Thailand tries to resolve a debilitating political stalemate, five unelected officials have been armed with the power to over-rule its government in key areas and chart a route out of the mess left by this month's disrupted election.
For three-and-a-half months, protesters, mostly from Bangkok and the south, have been seeking to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and rid the country of the influence of her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
At the general election on February 2, the protesters disrupted polling or blocked candidates from registering in almost 70 of the 375 voting constituencies, leaving the new House of Representatives without the required quorum of members.
That means Yingluck's Puea Thai Party government will continue on a caretaker basis, despite almost certainly winning a majority, until elections are held to fill the remaining seats.
The resulting stalemate has thrown the spotlight on the five-man Election Commission. The members - three former judges, an academic and a former worker at an NGO - now rank among the most powerful individuals in the Southeast Asian nation, a $320 billion economy.
The commission's main role is to ensure the smooth running of elections in Thailand. But with a caretaker government in Bangkok, its powers range far beyond that.
The commission's approval is necessary for government operations like the allocation of certain funds from the central budget and the reshuffle or transfer of high-ranking officials.
A caretaker government is also barred outright from signing contracts that commit the incoming government or using "state assets to its electoral advantage", said Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, a former political science professor at Thammasart University in Bangkok who is the most vocal of the five members.
"There are substantial limitations to what it can do," he told Reuters in an interview.
Some government supporters have said the commission has too much power and has tended to side with the Bangkok elite, fierce enemies of the Shinawatra clan.
"Somchai should be focused on the election but many times his standpoint has swayed towards the protesters or the opposition Democrat Party," said Anusorn Iam-sard, deputy spokesman for Yingluck's Puea Thai Party.
"We believe that if we amend the constitution then we should amend the powers of the commission but the problem we have now is that the election commission is not doing its job."
Somchai has denied that he is biased, but warns that a protracted stand-off between the government and its opponents was "impractical" and would drag on Thailand's economy. The central bank, which has been cutting its growth forecasts since the protests began in November, has expressed similar concerns.
"We can't wait six months... there needs to be pressure to make the government resign or talks between the two sides," Somchai said, speaking in his office at a university campus 50 km (30 miles) outside Bangkok, where the commmissioners have been meeting daily since the poll.
The current unrest, in which 11 people have been killed and hundreds injured, was sparked by a now-shelved amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home without serving a two-year jail sentence handed down in 2008 for graft.
The bill was ultimately withdrawn but protests against it turned into a larger anti-government movement that has broadly pitted the Bangkok middle classes and royalist establishment against the Shinawatras' mainly rural supporters in the north and northeast.
The commission had made it clear it did not want the February 2 poll to go ahead, arguing it should have been postponed due to the violence and instability.
On Tuesday, it said it would try to complete voting in late April, despite raising concerns that it did not think the election would be a success.
In recent days, the commission has been locked in a public dispute with the government over who has the authority to call the elections to the rest of the seats and whether the polling date has to be endorsed by the king.
Somchai said the election was a secondary issue compared with Thailand's seemingly intractable political divisions.
"The question isn't about who calls a fresh election, that is a minor issue, the real question is: Can elections even be held?" he said.
"Bangkok isn't so much an issue but protesters in the south really don't want an election and will do everything in their power to stop it," said Somchai, adding that he did not think the vote would yield the 475 seats needed to convene parliament.
Besides the 375 elected members, Thailand's laws give political parties an additional 125 seats in the House of Representatives, according to the percentage of votes they win.
Commissioners are appointed by the Senate, the upper house which is seen as conservative-leaning on account of its half-elected, half-appointed composition.
Charged with preventing electoral abuses, the commission controls every aspect of poll organisation, policing the electoral process and interpreting a constitution drawn up in 2007 that aimed at neutralizing Thaksin.
"The 2007 Constitution was designed after the 2006 coup that kicked out Thaksin by his enemies so, in essence, it is there to counteract his influence and that of his parties," said Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Ramkamhaeng University in Bangkok.
Somchai himself has also faced criticism after being photographed at the demonstrations which are still blocking parts of Bangkok.
"I'm not on one side or the other," he said in the interview. "I happen to live by a protest site and the protesters like to take their photograph with me so I oblige."
(Editing by Alex Richardson and Raju Gopalakrishnan)