Thailand election disrupted by protests

BBC's Jonathan Head: "At this polling station, it looks like the election is off"

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Protests have disrupted Thailand's general election, halting voting in parts of Bangkok and the south, but officials say that 89% of polling stations operated normally.

Some six million registered voters were affected by the closures, the Election Commission said.

PM Yingluck Shinawatra called the vote to head off weeks of mass protests.

Her party is widely expected to win but legal challenges and a lack of a quorum of MPs may create a political limbo.

At the scene

The unlikely sound of music blaring from a stage led us to the office holding ballot papers for the Din Daeng district. It was also a polling station. Overnight the protest movement had sent dozens of tough-looking men to set up barricades and cut it off.

The police did not try to interfere. An officer meekly requested that election officials trapped inside be allowed out. No deal, retorted the self-styled guards, adorned with tattoos and amulets, and some clearly armed. Nearly all were from the southern provinces loyal to protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban.

So the police set up a line across the road to prevent a confrontation with angry residents who had come to vote. They waved their identity cards, demanding their right to vote be respected. When that didn't work, someone brought up a portrait of the king and queen, and they shouted out their loyalty - a riposte to the common accusation by protesters that the government's supporters are closet republicans.

Suddenly one man broke through the police line, shouting "respect my vote". Insults were thrown back and forth across the barricade, then rocks, and a gunshot, before police could cool badly frayed tempers. They managed to persuade the southerners to pack up and leave; but the damage was done. All voting in Din Daeng was cancelled.

'I want to vote'

Security has been heavy throughout Thailand, with vast areas under a state of emergency.

"The situation overall is calm and we haven't received any reports of violence this morning," National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabutr told Reuters.

Security officials said about 130,000 personnel had been deployed across Thailand on Sunday, including 12,000 in Bangkok.

There has been little campaigning for the election and it was unclear how many Thais had turned out.

Ms Yingluck, who won the last election in 2011, voted soon after polls opened near her Bangkok home.

She told the BBC it was important that people came out to vote to exercise their democratic right.

But protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said the government would be unable to declare a result because of the closures, adding: "Therefore the election is a waste of time and money."

Protests prevented voting from taking place in 438 of Bangkok's 6,671 polling stations, and there was no voting at all in nine southern provinces.

The government said there was no disruption in the north and north-east of the country.

Ms Yingluck's Pheu Thai party has overwhelming support in these regions, while the south and parts of the capital are strongholds of the opposition Democrat Party, which is boycotting the election.

Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra: "Election is the right way under the democratic process"

The BBC's Jonathan Head in Bangkok says demonstrators blocked access to voters at some polling stations in the capital and prevented ballot papers reaching those polling stations.

Some voters expressed frustration when they found their local polling stations blocked.

Voter demands to cast ballot in Bangkok, 2 Feb A woman demands to cast her vote in Bangkok
Anti-government protesters in Bangkok, 2 Feb Anti-government protesters tried to block the delivery of ballot boxes
Voters at Bangkok polling station, 2 February 2014 Bangkok's Din Daeng district office was one place where polling was called off

"This is too much. I want to vote,"' 42-year-old Yupin Pintong told the Associated Press news agency. "I don't care if there's violence. I will be really upset if I don't get to vote."

Anti-government activist Nipon Kaewsook told Reuters: "We're not blocking the election. We're postponing it. We still need an election, but we need reform first."

Thailand's troubles

  • Sep 2006: Army ousts Thaksin Shinawatra
  • Dec 2007: Pro-Thaksin party wins election
  • Aug 2008: Thaksin flees Thailand
  • Dec 2008: Huge anti-Thaksin protests; court bans ruling party; Abhisit Vejjajiva comes to power
  • Mar-May 2010: Huge pro-Thaksin protests; dozens killed in army crackdown
  • Jul 2011: Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin, elected PM
  • Nov 2013: Anti-government protests
  • Dec 2013: Ms Yingluck calls election
  • Jan 2014: Ms Yingluck declares state of emergency

One high-profile politician, independent candidate and anti-corruption campaigner Chuwit Kamolvisit, brawled with anti-election activists.

"They tried to attack me while I was trying to vote," he said.

Legal challenges

Ms Yingluck's opponents took to the streets in November after her government tried to pass an amnesty law that would potentially have allowed her brother, Thaksin, to return from exile.

Thaksin, a former prime minister who fled during a court case in 2008, is reviled by the protesters, who say he controls the government from abroad.

Disruption to candidate registration means that even if Ms Yingluck wins the election, there will not be enough MPs in parliament for her to have full power over government policy, and by-elections will be needed.

The opposition is also likely to mount legal challenges to the election.

Ms Yingluck's party is already facing a host of challenges in the courts aiming to disband it, as has happened with pro-Thaksin parties in the past.

The Democrat Party, which is allied to the protesters, has been unable to win a majority in parliament for more than two decades.

Many of its members want the government to be replaced by an unelected "people's council" that would oversee wide reform of the political system.

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