Behind Thailand's vote, a looming national divide

Today's special election in Thailand is more likely to add fuel to the country's political standoff than it is to resolve the bitter national political divide.

Thais voted today in a tense election that was boycotted by hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters. Thousands more were unable to vote because of disruption at some polling stations in the capital Bangkok and nine southern provinces.

Despite fears of serious violence the day went off largely peacefully. But the election could lead to more trouble. Many here warn of looming political paralysis and predict months of protracted legal battles over the legitimacy of the poll.

“The election won’t change anything,” says Cod Satrusayang, a Thai political commentator. “Regardless of the results, whichever sides loses will declare the result illegitimate and they will step up protests.”

Parts of Bangkok were eerily quiet on Sunday morning as polling stations opened for what was one of the most contentious election days in the country’s history.

The capital of South East Asia’s second largest economy has been at the center of a political standoff between Thailand’s embattled government and protesters who want to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign. She called today’s snap election in December in an attempt to cool political tensions but protesters called for a boycott, insisting they will only end their confrontation if she steps down.

Billionaire's puppet?

Leader of the protests Suthep Thaugsuean has accused Yingluck of being a puppet of her billionaire brother and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is living in self-imposed exile. Suthep wants the government replaced by an unelected people’s council to change laws and end endemic corruption that he blames on the Shinwatra family. Thaksin’s supporters accuse Suthep of holding the country hostage in the interests of a small minority in Bangkok who have powerful connections to the military and the royal family.

The conflict, which has led to more than ten deaths during weeks of rallies and demonstrations in Bangkok, has threatened to bring the country to a standstill.

Hundreds of thousands of Bangkok residents appeared to stick by their pledge not to vote, choosing to stay at home or heading to pre-arranged demonstration sites for "protest picnics."

“We want reform, not an election,” says 47-year-old Boomyerm Sawatboon, standing with friends at one of the picnic sites wearing a Thai flag draped over her shoulder.

There was a carnival atmosphere in some parts of the city where families sat in the street on blankets eating food, painting each others’ faces and posing for photos. Elsewhere minor scuffles broke out outside polling stations where protesters attempted to block voting materials entering the building

At Din Daeng polling station in northern Bangkok, pro and anti-government protesters clashed on the street outside after district officials announced the polling station was not able to open because ballot boxes were blocked from delivery.

Can't vote

Voters gathered outside holding their ID cards in the air and chanting “we want to vote.”

“We’re angry because a small number of Thai’s don’t want democracy, it is my right to vote, we are being denied our right,” says 53-year-old Sakool Seingpairohlerd. “I have voted in every single election before this and I will lodge a complaint with local officials that they did not do more to ensure this ballot could proceed,” he adds.

Shortly afterwards, voters broke through the line of district officials and stormed Din Daeng polling station in an attempt to force it to open. However police said it was too dangerous to do so.

“We have orders not to open because if we do the protesters will come here and cause violence,” says district officer Amarit Suwantip, as he tried to hold the angry crowd back with his outstretched arms.

Security officials said 130,000 police were deployed around the country on Sunday to ensure the election ran smoothly, including 12,000 in Bangkok where most of the trouble was concentrated.

On Saturday a gunfight broke out between pro and anti government protesters on the outskirts of the capital where ballot boxes were being stored before delivery. Several people were injured in the attack including an American photographer whose leg was grazed by a bullet.

Shortly after polls closed on Sunday, Electoral Commission Chairman Supachai Somcharoen, said in a statement that 89 percent of the nation’s 93,952 polling stations had opened.

He said he expected to report strong turnout in the north and northeast of the country and that disrupted voting in Bangkok and the south had prevented thousands from taking part. 

Those who weren’t able to vote today or during early polling, which was also disrupted a week ago, are expected to get a second chance later this month.

For that reason it could take weeks for official results to be released and even then the outcome is likely to be inconclusive.

Protesters blocked candidate registration in some districts meaning parliament will not have enough members to convene. That means Prime Minister Yingluck, who is expected to win a majority, will be unable to form a government or pass a budget. Special elections will need to be held in over 20 constituencies.

The Electoral Commission said earlier in the week they are also expecting lawsuits to be filed questioning the validity of the poll which could extend Thailand's political limbo indefinitely.

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