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Asia-pacific

Thailand votes in tense election

© AFP

Video by Sanam SHANTYAEI

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-02-02

Thai voters went to the polls on Sunday to cast their ballot in a national election that could plunge the already divided country deeper into political crisis after weeks of violent protests.

Apart from a few scuffles voting was relatively peaceful, a day after seven people were wounded by gunshots and explosions during a clash between supporters and opponents of embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a north Bangkok stronghold of her Puea Thai Party.

Polls closed at 3pm (0800 GMT), but no results will be announced on Sunday. Further voting is already scheduled for Feb. 23 after problems with early voting last Sunday, while the ballot in some southern areas may not happen for weeks.

Voting in 13 of Bangkok’s 33 constituencies was disrupted. Thirty-seven out of 56 constituencies in the south, where opposition to the government is also strong, suffered disruption. Polling elsewhere in the country was unaffected.

“The situation overall is calm and we haven’t received any reports of violence this morning,” National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabutr told the Reuters news agency. “The protesters are rallying peacefully to show their opposition to this election.”

The usual campaign billboards, glossy posters and pre-election buzz have been notably absent, as will be millions of voters fearful of violence or bent on rejecting a ballot that is likely to re-elect the political machine controlled by Yingluck’s billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, 64, is both loved and loathed in Thailand, but his parties have won every poll since 2001. His opponents say he is a corrupt crony capitalist who rules by proxy from self-exile in Dubai.

“We’re not blocking the election. We’re postponing it,” said Nipon Kaewsook, 42, one of the hundreds of protesters blocking Ratchathewi District Office in central Bangkok to prevent the distribution of dozens of ballot boxes.

“We still need an election, but we need reform first,” added Nipon, an English teacher from Phattalung in southern Thailand.

Protesters shouted “Yingluck get out!” and “Thaksin go to jail!” They took celebratory selfies in front of the ballot boxes, placed in a car park at the back of the building.

FRANCE 24's Ismail Wolff reports on Thai elections from Bangkok

If Yingluck wins, she could find herself on shaky ground. With parliamentary seats unable to be filled, she could find herself vulnerable to legal attacks. It would also be difficult to pass legislation and budgets needed to revive the country’s flagging economy.

Just last week, Yingluck refused to postpone the election, even though a fifth of those registered for advance voting were unable to cast ballots after protesters blocked polling stations in 49 of 50 Bangkok districts as part of a “shutdown” of key intersections. In 28 southern constituencies, no votes will be cast because no candidates could sign up.

The Election Commission says results will not be available on Sunday. Its commissioners are braced for a deluge of complaints and challenges to the results.

“There’s been a lot of obstruction, so much, every single step of the way,” commission secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong told Reuters.

“We don’t want this election to be a bloody election. We can get every single agency involved to make this election happen, but if there’s bloodshed, what’s the point?”

Deep divisions

Anti-government demonstrators say Thaksin subverted Thailand’s fragile democracy by entrenching money politics and using taxpayers’ money for generous subsidies, cheap healthcare and easy loans that have bought him loyalty from millions of working-class Thai voters in the north and northeast.

With broad support from Bangkok’s middle class and tacit backing of the royalist establishment, old-money elite and military, the protesters reject the election and want to suspend democracy, replacing it with an appointed “people’s council” to reform politics and erode Thaksin’s influence.

The latest round of unrest in the eight-year political conflict erupted in November and underscored Thaksin’s central role in the intractable struggle, both as hero and villain.

Yingluck was largely tolerated by Thaksin’s opponents but her party miscalculated when it tried to introduce a blanket amnesty that would have nullified a graft conviction against Thaksin and allowed him to return home.

Many Thais see history repeating itself after a cycle of elections, protests and military or judicial interventions that have polarised the country and angered Thaksin’s “red shirt” supporters, who held crippling blockades in 2010 and have vowed to defend his sister from any overthrow attempt.

Thailand’s military has remained neutral so far, but the judiciary has taken on an unusually large number of cases in the past two months in response to complaints against Yingluck and Puea Thai that could result in the party’s dissolution and lengthy bans for its top politicians.

There is also a chance the election could be annulled, as it was in 2006, over a technicality. The Election Commission is expecting lawsuits to be filed demanding the election be voided.

The main opposition Democrat Party is boycotting the poll and the commission has already voiced concerns that it would result in too few legitimately elected MPs to form a parliamentary quorum.

With no quorum to re-elect a prime minister, it looks likely Yingluck could be a caretaker premier for months. Even with a fresh mandate, a stalemate is almost certain, giving her opponents more time to intensify their campaign against her and for legal challenges to be lodged.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-02-02

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