• The Associated Press


Thailand’s finance minister said Friday that early elections are a possibility, but the government isn’t bound by its offer to hold them by November because antigovernment protesters never accepted the deal.

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij also said turmoil surrounding the protests that shut down central Bangkok for six weeks has dealt a “disastrous” blow to the vital tourism industry and may cut up to half a percentage point from Thailand’s economic growth.

Korn said several conditions need to be met before elections could be held, including ensuring they would be “free and fair.”

“If we can do that in November, we will do it in November. If it takes a little bit longer than that, we’ll give it the necessary time that is required,” he told an economic conference in Tokyo.

Korn said it was crucial that “emotions have cooled” before an election and that candidates from all parties “feel safe in campaigning anywhere in the country.”

“Frankly, we would not feel safe doing that today,” he said.

There is strong antigovernment sentiment in the poor, rural north and northeast, home to many of the “Red Shirt” protesters who feel that the government has forgotten them and believe that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government is elitist and came to power illegitimately.

Korn also acknowledged that Thailand, like many developing Asian nations, must find ways to reduce poverty and address the yawning gap between the rich and the poor.

“Recent political events in Thailand have proved that you ignore this issue at your own peril,” he said in his speech.

While the percentage of Thais living below the poverty line has declined to 9 percent from 45 percent of the population 25 years ago, Korn said income disparity has remained a serious problem, with the country’s top 20 percent earning more than 12 times those in the bottom 20 percent.

Korn said Abhisit remains committed to plans he outlined earlier this month in a reconciliation “road map,” including “addressing issues related to income inequality and reforming the political structure to make it more representative.”

But the prime minister would not be obliged to hold elections by Nov. 14 because the protesters refused to disband the protest before it was dispersed by the military Wednesday in a crackdown that left 15 dead and dozens wounded.

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