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Thai protesters disrupt advance voting for disputed election

AFP , Sunday 26 Jan 2014
Thailand
Anti-government protesters hold banners as they march in a rally to a polling station in central Bangkok January 26, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)
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Thai anti-government protesters besieged polling stations in Bangkok Sunday forcing dozens to close as advance voting for controversial elections got under way, deepening doubts over the viability of next weekend's ballot.

Over two million people are registered for the advance vote ahead of the February 2 election, which was called by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in an attempt to defuse rising political tensions after weeks of mass anti-government protests.

Protesters descended on scores of polling stations in the Thai capital and several southern provinces, preventing ballot officials and voters from entering and prompting election authorities to shutter at least 34 venues.

There were no immediate reports of violence but Thai television reported verbal clashes between voters and protesters at some polling stations, with the disruption renewing fears of chaos if the government presses ahead with next Sunday's poll.

"At least 34 poll stations are reported closed out of 50 in Bangkok," Election Commission secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong told AFP.

"Election officials at the poll stations could not go inside because of the protesters," he said, adding venues in several southern provinces -- an anti-government stronghold -- had reported similar problems.

Yingluck, who has so far refused to resign or delay the poll, is set to meet elections officials on Tuesday after the country's influential Constitutional Court ruled that the general election could legally be delayed because of the crisis.

The demonstrators, who have staged a near two-week so-called "shutdown" of Bangkok in an effort to derail the vote, have rejected the election.

They had insisted they would not obstruct advance voters, although analysts have questioned whether the disruption is tantamount to intimidation of the electorate.

An officer from the National Police said some 2,500 protesters surrounded dozens of polling stations but police were keeping a low profile to avoid riling the demonstrators.

Advance voting is for those who are unable to take part in the February 2 election and is routine, although this time it is being seen as a litmus test for the possibility of holding the vote next week without violence.

The embattled government has declared a state of emergency to give it the legal tools to handle crisis.

Nine people have been killed and hundreds injured during nearly three months of protests that have sparked international concern and investor fears over the country's economy.

Demonstrators want to topple the government and install an unelected "people's council" to implement loosely-defined reforms that they hope will rid Thailand of the influence of ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra -- Yingluck's older brother.

They say another poll win for the ruling party will further embed the Shinawatra clan into Thai politics.

"I'm here to prevent people from voting," said 64-year-old Amornchock, giving one name, at a Bangkok polling station where the entrance remained padlocked as voting opened.

"I'm not against democracy, I'm not against elections, but they have to be fair."

At another polling station in the capital around a dozen frustrated voters said the closure of the venue amounted to an assault on their democratic freedom.

"I came to protect my rights," said 75-year-old Vipa Yoteepitak.

"We can't let this happen, if we don't fight today (to vote), we will keep losing our rights."

Thailand's has been left divided by years of political turmoil that began shortly before Thaksin was deposed in a military coup in 2006.

The crisis roughly pits Thaksin's supporters from rural and urbanised communities in the north and northeast against his foes within the country's elite, the Bangkok middle classes and parts of the south.

The billionaire tycoon-turned-politician -- who lives abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption that he says was politically motivated -- has won every election since 2001 either directly or more recently through allied parties.

But his opponents accuse him of corruption, "vote buying" and pushing through expensive populist policies to strengthen his electoral position.

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