Thai protesters obstruct vote; 1 dead in violence
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Thai protesters obstruct vote; 1 dead in violence

BANGKOK (AP) — Anti-government demonstrators trying to derail contentious elections due in Thailand next week swarmed dozens of polling stations to stop advance voting Sunday, chaining them shut and preventing hundreds of thousands of people from casting ballots.

A protest faction leader was fatally shot in a confrontation near a polling station that also left 11 people wounded, and isolated street brawls broke out in several parts of Bangkok.

The chaos underscored the increasing powerlessness of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected administration, which had called the Feb. 2 vote in a failed bid to ease months of street protests and declared a state of emergency last week. Police took no action to disperse the crowds, following longstanding government orders that appear aimed at avoiding violence that could trigger a military coup.

Although most polling stations in Bangkok and many in the opposition stronghold in the south were forced to close, voting proceeded largely unhindered in the rest of the country. Still, the upheaval proved that demonstrators struggling to overthrow Yingluck have the ability to disrupt the main vote next week, which the Election Commission also wants postponed.

Ruling party officials suggested over the weekend that they were willing to delay the ballot, but only if protests end and the main opposition party abandons its boycott. There has been no sign yet that Yingluck’s rivals would agree to any deal, however, and Sunday’s unrest appeared likely to push the two sides further apart.

Suthida Sungkhapunthu, a 28-year-old office worker, turned back from one polling station after reading news of the day’s mayhem on her phone.

“I saw this coming but I’m still quite disappointed,” she said, denouncing the protesters as “undemocratic” as she watched a mob surrounding her polling station a block away. “It’s my constitutional right” to vote, she said.

The protest movement, known as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, had pledged not to obstruct the poll, saying its supporters would only stand outside to express their views and urge people not to vote. Protest spokesman Akanat Promphan told The Associated Press that those who had locked the gates of polling stations had “acted on their own,” but he did not condemn them and said the decision to close stations was made by Election Commission officials.

The protesters’ effort, however, appeared to have been widely coordinated. All across Bangkok, demonstrators waving the Thai flag physically blocked electoral officials, ballot boxes and voters from getting inside polling centers, ultimately prompting officials to shut at least 48 of the city’s 50 voting stations. In the south, 11 more voting stations were also shut, bringing the total number closed to 59 out of 152 nationwide, authorities said.

Scuffles broke out in some areas, and Bangkok’s emergency medical center said at least one person was killed and 11 wounded in a clash near a polling station in southeast Bangkok. The slain man was Sutin Tharatin, a protest faction leader who was shot in the head, according to Suriyasai Katasila, politician who was close to him.

The protesters are pushing for Yingluck’s government to be replaced by a non-elected “people’s council” that would implement anti-corruption reforms before a new vote can take place. They accuse Yingluck’s government of carrying on the practices of her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister they allege used the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and subvert democracy.

Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 after street protests accusing him of corruption and abuse of power. The coup triggered a sometimes-violent and struggle for power between Thaksin’s supporters and opponents, which in broad terms pits a rural north against the urban elite backed by royalists and the nation’s south. Thaksin fled into exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest.

About 49 million of the nation’s 64 million people are eligible to cast ballots in February, and 2.16 million applied for early voting. But even before Sunday, there had been increasing doubt that the Feb. 2 poll would go ahead.

The Election Commission has argued the poll should be delayed because of concern over possible violence. But critics accuse the commission, which is supposed to be a neutral body, of bias. The commission pointedly failed to condemn an effort by protesters to disrupt candidate registration in December, and its top executive has posed for at least one smiling photo with demonstrators.

Analysts say the courts and the country’s independent oversight agencies all tilt heavily against the Shinawatras’ political machine. Yingluck is facing several cases that could end with her or her party being banished from governing because of alleged corruption or violations of the constitution.

On Friday, the Constitutional Court ruled that the government could postpone the Feb. 2 poll if it agreed a new date with the Election Commission. But Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party, which had argued it has no authority to delay balloting, questioned the legal basis for the ruling.

Even if the full vote goes ahead, Thailand’s crisis is expected to drag on. Parliament is unlikely to achieve the quorum it needs to convene, which would prevent a new government from being formed.