Defying emergency rule, Thai protesters padlock polling stations in Bangkok (+video)
Hundreds of thousands of voters in Bangkok who had registered for advance voting were unable to cast ballots Sunday, underscoring Thailand's political impasse.
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Antigovernment protesters in Thailand succeeded Sunday in disrupting advance voting in Feb. 2 parliamentary elections, defying a state of emergency declared by embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Voters were prevented from casting ballots in Bangkok and several southern provinces.
One protest leader was shot dead after reportedly confronting government supporters near a polling station in the Thai capital. Three others were injured in the attack, the Bangkok Post reports. At least nine people have died in protest-related clashes in Bangkok since November.
Flag-waving protesters used padlocks to block access to 49 out of 50 polling stations in Bangkok, the BBC reports. The protest movement had said that it would simply hold rallies outside polling stations to urge a boycott, but instead its supporters used force to lock out hundreds of thousands of registered voters.
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The government has insisted that next Sunday's election will go ahead, even though some districts have no candidates after the main opposition Democrat Party refused to run and protesters besieged registration centers. Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said Sunday that most advance polling had gone smoothly.
“We won’t postpone the election on Feb. 2 because we’ve seen from the advance voting that it can still go ahead,” Mr. Surapong told reporters before the death of the protester, Bloomberg reports.
On Friday, the country's constitutional court ruled that the election could be postponed, but that the decision rested with the prime minister and the Election Commission, an independent body that has been accused of siding with the protest movement, which draws much of its support from conservative bureaucrats, businesspeople and politicians.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party, said Sunday that Yingluck could face impeachment if she went ahead with the election after the court ruled that it could legally be postponed. In a comment posted on his Facebook page, Mr. Abhisit, who preceded Yingluck as prime minister, said the government should consult with the Election Commission and, if necessary, reschedule the Feb. 2 election.
The protesters, led by a former deputy prime minister from the Democrat Party, want to remove Ms. Yingluck and replace her elected government with an unelected council. They argue that Yingluck and her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have undermined Thailand's democracy by buying votes, embezzling state funds, and interfering with independent checks on elected government.
Critics say the protesters represent a relatively privileged minority that look down on millions of ordinary Thais that see Mr. Thaksin and his family as legitimate leaders. The government remains popular in the north and northeast of Thailand; the protest movement has made no inroads in these areas, though it has tried to capitalize on frustrations among rice farmers over a gap in funding for a controversial government subsidy program, as the Monitor recently reported.
While Yingluck's base is often described as rural, Thailand's electoral system overstates this bias: Rural migrants who live and work in cities like Bangkok can't easily switch their household registration so they must return home to vote. This is one reason why some opt for advance voting to avoid the crowds.
Despite Sunday's disruption Yingluck is expected to sweep to victory in the upcoming polls, provided that her supporters are able to cast ballots. She was elected in a landslide in 2011 despite having no political experience.
But forming a new government would be complicated by a paucity of lawmakers from opposition strongholds in southern Thailand. Parliament requires a quorum of lawmakers to be formally seated. One scenario would be for by-elections to be held after Feb. 2 in the uncontested southern districts so that they can send representatives to parliament.
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit argued that the Democrats' election boycott and support for disruptive protests that don't respect majority opinions may prove counterproductive. The two academics, who have written several books on Thai politics and society, said a delayed election offered a way for the party to reconsider its boycott. Otherwise, they warned, Thailand's election offered no clear way to resolve the political crisis.