BANGKOK (Reuters) — Thai authorities might
close polling booths if violence erupts during Sunday's disputed
election, which would further undermine the credibility of a vote that
is deemed incapable of restoring stability in the polarized country.
The government has vowed to push ahead with the general election
despite threats by anti-government protesters, camped out at major
intersections in Bangkok, that they will disrupt the polls in an
attempt to stop Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's Puea Thai Party
from returning to power.
The anti-government protesters took to the streets in November in
the latest round of an eight-year conflict that pits Bangkok's
middle class, southern Thais and the royalist establishment against
the mostly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother,
former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in 2006.
The main opposition Democrat party, which backs the anti-government
protests, is boycotting the election, which Yingluck's party is
bound to win but without enough members to achieve a quorum in
The prospect of polling stations having to close early because of
trouble on the streets will only add to doubts about the vote's
Puchong Nutrawong, secretary-general of the Election Commission,
said it was concentrating on security in Bangkok and the south,
where the opposition is strong.
The protesters, members of the People's Democratic Reform Committee,
forced polling stations in 49 of 50 districts in Bangkok to shut
last weekend and voting could only go ahead in three of 15 southern
"We're focusing our security efforts in Bangkok and in the south.
I've asked commission officials to call polling venues in southern
Thailand today to ensure we are as prepared as we can be," Puchong
told Reuters. "If any polling station faces a security threat it can
Protesters have threatened to obstruct access to polling stations
again on Sunday, although protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, in an
apparent contradiction, said his supporters would not stop people
The government has imposed a state of emergency to help control the
protest movement but troops have barely been seen on the streets and
the police have kept a low profile.
More than 93,000 polling stations will be set up around the country
on Sunday. The commission, which wanted to postpone the vote because
of the volatility, said it had authority to order troops and police
to help ensure the election takes place.
"Soldiers are ready to help with the elections," army chief Prayuth
Chan-ocha told reporters. "The Election Commission is working out
which are the potential flashpoints. Troops are ready to support but
won't go near polling stations. Election venue security is the
responsibility of the police."
Suthep wants to rid the country of the Shinawatra family's political
influence and accuses Yingluck, who swept to power in the last
election in 2011, of being Thaksin's puppet.
The protesters say Thaksin is a corrupt crony capitalist who
commandeered Thailand's fragile democracy, using taxpayers' money to
buy votes with populist giveaways. Thaksin has chosen to live abroad
since 2008 to avoid a jail term for graft.
He or his allies have won every election since 2001. His passionate
supporters say he was the first Thai political leader to keep
campaign promises to help the poor.
FEAR OF BLOODSHED
Suthep led a march in Bangkok on Friday, part of a three-day push to
show opposition to the vote. He wants political reforms, including
the setting up of a "people's council" of notable worthies, before
another election is held.
The government's decision to press ahead with the election has riled
protesters and inflamed tension in Bangkok where demonstrators are
in their third week of an occupation of several main intersections.
Ten people have died and at least 577 have been wounded in
politically related violence since late November, according to the
Erawan Medical Center, which monitors Bangkok hospitals.
A protest leader had sought to get the government's state of
emergency ruled illegal but a court rejected the case on Friday,
although it said people should not be banned from taking food and
other goods into the protest camps, a clause in the emergency decree
that has done nothing to stop markets springing up in those areas.
The prolonged unrest has hurt tourism and the central bank says the
economy may grow only 3 percent this year rather than the 4 percent
it had forecast.
Exports have not been hit hard by the trouble but the Commerce
Ministry said on Friday shipments grew by an anemic 1.9 percent in
December from a year before.
Like other arms of the government, the Commerce Ministry has been
forced to close its doors by the protesters and the briefing on the
trade figures was held in a restaurant in Nonthaburi province to the
north of Bangkok.
(Editing by Alan Raybould, Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)