By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's Constitutional Court on Friday opened the way to put off a general election the government has set for February 2, piling pressure on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who looks increasingly cornered by legal challenges to her grip on power.
The Election Commission sought court approval to postpone the vote, arguing that the country was too unsettled by mass anti-government protests in the capital, now in their third month, to hold a successful vote.
Yingluck called the election in the hope of confirming her hold on power in the face of protests trying to force her from office.
"(The ruling) is likely to be seen as part of the build-up to dislodge Yingluck from office, similar to what happened in 2008 but with higher stakes and higher potential for violence and unpredictability," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political analyst at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said.
In 2008, courts brought down two governments allied to Yingluck's brother and ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who now lives in self-imposed exile.
The ruling appears to fudge a decision. It gave the Election Commission the right to postpone the election, but also ruled that the commission would have to agree on a new date with the government.
The government has refused to accept a delay in the vote which it would almost certainly win and which the opposition says it will boycott.
Varathep Rattankorn, a minister at the prime minister's office, said it would study the ruling before deciding its next move.
One election commissioner, speaking to Reuters, said the vote could still go ahead on February 2 if Yingluck's government dug in its heels.
"We will ask to meet with the prime minister and her government on Monday to discuss a new election date," Election Commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn said. "If the government doesn't agree to postpone the election, then the election will go ahead."
STATE OF EMERGENCY
The government declared a 60-day state of emergency from Wednesday hoping to prevent an escalation in protests.
A leading pro-government activist was shot and wounded the same day in northeast Thailand, a Yingluck stronghold, in what police said was a political attack, adding to fears the violence could spread.
Nine people have died and dozens been wounded in violence, including two grenade attacks in the capital last weekend.
Anti-government firebrand and protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, accusing the government of mass corruption, wants it to step down and a "people's council" appointed to push through electoral and political changes.
He has yet to comment publicly on the court ruling.
The protests are the latest eruption in a political conflict that has gripped the country for eight years.
Broadly, it pits the Bangkok middle class and royalist establishment against the mainly poorer supporters of Yingluck and her brother, who was toppled by the military in 2006.
FEARS OF ELECTION DAY VIOLENCE
Many see both the Constitutional Court and the Election Commission as favoring Yingluck's opponents.
"The pressure will be much more on Yingluck than the Election Commission because the Constitutional Court decision is much more supportive of the (commission)," Thitinan said.
By calling the election, and dissolving parliament as required by law, she now heads a caretaker government which has only limited powers.
In particular, it puts in jeopardy a costly rice-buying scheme she brought in and which benefits her "red shirt" supporters in rural regions that form her powerbase.
But the scheme is running short of funds, meaning farmers are not getting paid for their recent harvests. And because a caretaker government is barred from adding to the state's financial burden, she is running short of options to fund the scheme.
That in turn could undermine her popularity among some farming communities.
Several governments have warned their nationals to avoid protest areas in Bangkok, among the world's most visited cities. China called on Thailand to "restore stability and order as soon as possible" through talks.
So far the military, which has been involved in 18 actual or attempted coups in the past 81 years, has kept out of the fray. Police are charged with enforcing the state of emergency and are under orders from Yingluck to handle protesters with restraint.
The emergency decree gives security agencies powers to detain suspects, impose a curfew and limit gatherings but some analysts said it was in part designed to give Yingluck legal protection if police step in.
(Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat; Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Nick Macfie)