Tension in Thailand as voters go to polls

Thailand’s general election is tomorrow, but the main opposition Democrat Party is boycotting it and protesters are seeking to scuttle the vote by blocking access to polling stations.

A government supporter lights a candle during a vigil in Bangkok. Picture: AP
A government supporter lights a candle during a vigil in Bangkok. Picture: AP

The government has vowed to push ahead with the vote despite threats by opponents, camped out at major intersections in Bangkok, that they will disrupt voting in an attempt to stop prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Puea Thai Party from returning to power.

Anti-government demonstrators took to the streets in November in the latest round of an eight-year conflict that pits Bangkok’s middle class, southern Thais and the royalist establishment against the mostly poor, rural supporters of Ms Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was kicked out of power in 2006.

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As the Democrat Party is boycotting the election, Ms Yingluck’s party is bound to win, but without enough members for a quorum in parliament.

The government has imposed a state of emergency to help control the protest movement, but troops have barely been seen on the streets and police have kept a low profile.

Puchong Nutrawong, head of Thailand’s Election Commission, said it was concentrating on security in Bangkok and the south, where the opposition is strong.

The protesters, members of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, forced polling stations in 49 of the 50 districts in Bangkok to shut last weekend, and voting could go ahead in only three of 15 southern provinces.

“I’ve asked commission officials to call polling venues in southern Thailand today to ensure we are as prepared as we can be,” Mr Puchong said yesterday. “If any polling station faces a security threat, it can shut down.”

Protesters are threatening to again obstruct access to polling stations tomorrow, although protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, in an apparent contradiction, said his supporters would not stop people voting.

More than 93,000 polling stations will be set up around the country. The commission, which wanted to postpone the vote because of the volatility, said it had the authority to order troops and police to help ensure the election takes place.

“Soldiers are ready to help with the elections,” army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters. “The Election Commission is working out which are the potential flashpoints. Troops are ready to support but won’t go near polling stations. Election venue security is the responsibility of the police.”

Mr Suthep says he wants to rid Thailand of the Shinawatra family’s political influence and accuses Ms Yingluck, who swept to power in the last election in 2011, of being her brother’s puppet.

The protesters accuse Mr Thaksin of using taxpayers’ money to buy votes with populist giveaways. He has chosen to live abroad since 2008 to avoid a jail term for corruption.

He or his allies have won every election since 2001. His supporters say he was the first Thai political leader to keep campaign promises to help the poor.

Mr Suthep led a march in Bangkok yesterday, part of a three-day push to show opposition to the vote. He wants political reforms, including the setting up of a “people’s council” of notable, unelected worthies, before another election is held.

The government’s decision to go ahead with the election has inflamed tension in Bangkok, where protesters are in their third week of an occupation of several main intersections.

Ten people have died and at least 577 have been wounded in politically related violence since late November, according to the Erawan Medical Centre, which monitors Bangkok hospitals.