Thai protesters make up for lack of Bangkok pre-election buzz
Tens of thousands of police will be deployed across Thailand on Sunday for an election seen as a crucial test of the kingdom's fragile democracy
Thailand goes to the polls on Sunday, but the usual pre-election buzz, banners and loud-hailers on the backs of trucks are noticeable by their absence in the capital, Bangkok.
Anti-government protesters have blocked major intersections and flyovers for weeks, setting up camps in neat rows of tents. They have boycotted the election and vowed to disrupt the voting, prompting a huge security operation involving thousands of police and troops.
Election preparations are under way, but the casual observer has to look hard for clues.
At a polling station at a school in the Don Muang district in north Bangkok, the only evidence is a signboard listing the candidates, propped up against the wall under a staircase.
Outside the district office, a sign says “Your voice = the power of democracy. Move forward with the election and reform together on February 2, this year”.
But that call has been lost on the protesters who want their own reform of the political landscape, setting up a “people’s council” to run the country after bringing down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Ten people have been killed and at least 577 wounded in politically related violence since the end of November and many voters fear Sunday’s vote will end in bloodshed.
“The government must take responsibility if police can’t control the situation and violence breaks out,” Election Commission official Somchai Srisutthiyakorn told reporters.
The commission has said the vote should be postponed warning that the situation is too volatile.
A protest leader was killed and about a dozen people were wounded in a clash near a polling station during advance voting, for those who can’t vote on Sunday, at the weekend.
Commission head Puchong Nutrawong said polling stations in 49 of Bangkok’s 50 districts were forced shut.
“If we look at the overall picture, the problem is in Bangkok and in the 15 southern provinces,” he said.
Labour Minister Chalerm Yoombamrung, in charge of a state of emergency, urged the protesters not to disrupt the vote, warning that people would “beat each other to a pulp”.
During a visit to a Buddhist temple in Don Muang, businessman Suwit Sakhajorn, 32, said people were too scared to put up election posters.
“We are afraid of bombs,” he said. “But we will have to leave security to the police.”
Prasai Wanta, 30, a teacher at the school polling station, said he would vote because that was his right. “But we will have to monitor the situation closely,” he said.
Election officials in Don Muang, where residents largely voted for the government’s ruling Puea Thai Party in the 2011 election, said they would start setting up booths at 5am on Sunday with 10 officials and one policeman overseeing each of the constituency’s 199 booths.
The protests are the latest episode of a sometimes violent eight-year conflict between Bangkok’s middle class and southern Thais against the mostly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006.
They mark the biggest demonstrations since deadly political unrest in 2010 when Thaksin’s “red-shirt” supporters paralysed Bangkok to remove a government led by the Democrat Party, now the opposition.
More than 90 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded when current protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, at the time a deputy prime minister, sent in troops.
He has threatened to disrupt the election, but in an apparent about-face on Thursday, said those who wanted to vote should do so.
He and his supporters have made up for the lack of pre-election festivities with fiery speeches and rock music relayed on to huge screens at campsites straddling junctions just yards from Bangkok’s famous bar districts.
“We will hold a big picnic on February 2 and shut down the city in our own, peaceful way,” Suthep said on Thursday. “We don’t care who goes out to vote. We will hold major rallies on every road, every street and every corner of Bangkok.”