Polls open in troubled Thai election

Agence France-Presse
(UPDATED) Anti-government protesters force the closure of more than 10% of polling stations nationwide, an Election Commission official says

'RESPECT MY VOTE' A Thai pro-election activist holds a placard that reads "respect my vote" in Laksi district of Bangkok on February 1, 2014. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

BANGKOK, Thailand (UPDATED) – Voting began Sunday, February 2, in Thailand’s troubled election but anti-government protesters forced the closure of more than 10% of polling stations nationwide, an Election Commission official said.

“Polling stations have opened,” said Election Commission secretary general Puchong Nutrawong, adding protesters prevented voting across 12 southern provinces and in at least three Bangkok districts.

The snap poll was called by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in an unsuccessful attempt to quell rising tensions in the nation, which has seen three months of sometimes bloody rallies aimed at toppling her government.

Voting comes just a day after explosions and heavy gunfire rattled a northern Bangkok suburb in clashes between government supporters and opposition demonstrators that left at least six people injured and sent bystanders fleeing bullets into a local shopping mall.

In Thailand’s southern provinces – a stronghold of the anti-government movement – protesters stopped post offices from distributing ballot sheets and boxes to polling stations in 42 constituencies, Puchong added.

In Bangkok election authorities were unable to hold polls in at least three districts.

“They cannot open in Ratchathevi, Din Daeng and Lak Si districts — which was closed last night (after the gunfight),” said Ninart Chalitanon of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration told Agence France-Presse.

Voting went ahead in Thailand’s remaining 65 provinces, the Election Commission said, in polls that are widely expected to return Yingluck to power after an election boycott by the main opposition Democrat Party.

Delay sought by opposition

Protesters want the election delayed by a year or more so an unelected “people’s council” can implement vaguely-defined reforms to expunge the influence of Yingluck’s divisive brother Thaksin – a former premier ousted in a 2006 coup that unleashed a cycle of political unrest in the country.

“This is a very worrying sign for what could happen” during polling, said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, who witnessed the pitched street battle.

“It is very very important for leaders of both sides to completely reject violence… We cannot afford more casualties in Thailand,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Saturday’s clashes happened after demonstrators blocking ballot boxes from being delivered from the Lak Si district office – one of 50 in the capital – were confronted by scores of government supporters, some armed with sticks and metal bars.

At least 10 people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes, grenade attacks and drive-by shootings since the opposition rallies began.

Each side in the bitterly divided kingdom routinely blames the other for the violence.

Thailand’s long-running political struggle pits its royalist establishment – backed by the courts and the military – against Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-politician who lives in Dubai to avoid a prison term for graft.

The latest unrest is the worst political bloodshed in the kingdom since 2010 protests by pro-Thaksin Red Shirts that left more than 90 dead and nearly 1,900 injured after clashes and a brutal military crackdown.

Uncertainty

Authorities said Saturday, February 1, they were boosting security around the polls, with both police and soldiers on the capital’s streets.

But the government has so far appeared reluctant to use force against the rallies, despite declaring a state of emergency last month.

The elite-backed opposition Democrat Party – which has not won an elected majority in around two decades – is boycotting the vote.

This leaves the field open for Yingluck, who is expected to win the polls helped by strong electoral support among rural and urbanized communities from Thaksin’s northeastern heartlands.

But disruption by demonstrators to candidate registrations means that if Yingluck wins she will still remain in a caretaker role with limited power over government policy until by-elections are held to ensure there are enough MPs to convene parliament.

Election officials have warned that the result may not be known for months because of problems caused by the protests.

Advance voting in parts of the country, including Bangkok, on January 26 was marred by blockades by opposition protesters who stopped hundreds of thousands of people from casting ballots. – Rappler.com