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Protesters Block Some Voting to Weaken Thailand's Government

BANGKOK, Thailand (Feb. 2) -- Anti-election protesters on Sunday blocked nearly 10 percent of Thailand's 93,000 polling stations to prevent the quick formation of a new government, despite millions of people voting to replace Parliament's House of Representatives.

After the polls closed, anti-government protesters threatened more disruptions in Bangkok's streets on Monday (Feb. 3), to continue their increasingly violent bid to topple the popular Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

On Sunday (Feb. 2), protesters manned makeshift barricades in Bangkok and southern Thailand to stop voters, election officials and the distribution of ballots.

Officials said 89 percent of the country's polling stations conducted elections peacefully, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported.

Protesters blocked voters at 438 of Bangkok's 6,671 polling stations, while in southern Thailand no voting could be held in nine provinces where anti-election sentiment was also widespread, the BBC said.

Associated Press put the number of blocked stations in Bangkok at 488, plus "hundreds of polling stations in the south."

The final numbers were expected to be announced after updates come in from isolated areas.

Security forces in this Buddhist-majority country did little to intervene at blocked voting booths, because they want to avoid causing bloodshed.

Thailand's minority of anti-government protesters were too few to elect their own politicians, so they tried to stop Ms. Yingluck's candidates from being re-elected, as expected.

The protesters want their candidates to seize power by replacing Thailand's elected government with an appointed "people's council" of 400 unidentified men.

They would "reform" the democratic system so more appointees would dominate Parliament, the judiciary and other institutions to reduce the rights of voters and elected politicians.

"I am very happy today," protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban told a rally after the polls closed on Sunday (Feb. 2), amid hopes that the polls may be declared invalid or at least further weaken the government.

"We do not want the election to be held, because it will be a tool for the government to stay in power," the flamboyant Mr. Suthep Thaugsuban said on Saturday (Feb. 1).

On Saturday (Feb. 1), a gunfight erupted next to a Bangkok shopping mall where protesters blockaded government offices to stop the distribution of ballots and cancel plans for polls in that zone.

At least seven people were injured before security forces established their presence and the Election Commission cancelled all 158 polling stations in the area.

Ten people have died in Bangkok in clashes and grenade attacks among protesters, government supporters and police during the past three months.

Officials on Monday (Feb. 3) face the legal consequences of the blockades, which include delays in forming a new government in Thailand, a key non-NATO ally of the U.S. in Asia.

Future elections are required in 28 constituencies in southern Thailand where candidates were blocked from registering in December.

As a result, Sunday's (Feb. 2) elections will not fill the required 95 percent of the bicameral Parliament's 500 seats, which are needed to form a new government within 30 days after the polls.

During a first round of polls on Jan. 26, protesters prevented 450,000 voters from casting ballots, mostly in Bangkok.

Those 450,000 voters expect to be given another chance to cast ballots in the weeks ahead, along with fresh polls for voters elsewhere in Thailand who were stopped on Sunday (Feb. 2).

Some officials predicted the Election Commission will nullify the poll results, tumbling Thailand into a fresh crisis.

If that happens, Ms. Yingluck may limp along as caretaker prime minister or be forced from office.

Ms. Yingluck won a popular election in 2011 and enjoyed relative stability until anti-government protests began on Oct. 31.

They cited her attempt to push an amnesty bid in November which would have allowed her convicted elder brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to return home and not serve a two-year prison sentence for abuse of power committed during his popular 2001-2006 administration.

Ms. Yingluck was also targeted by the anti-election protesters when she tried to change the half-appointed Senate into a fully elected body.

Though her amnesty and Senate moves failed, protesters added allegations of corruption against her administration, and demanded Ms. Yingluck resign.

To defuse the protests, Ms. Yingluck dissolved Parliament's House of Representatives, expecting to again win at the polls and emphasize her mandate.

The increasingly vigilante-style protests include a class struggle by wealthy and middle-class Bangkok residents and their southern backers against Ms. Yingluck's supporters among by the urban and rural poor in the north and northeast.

Ms. Yingluck's base benefits from her populist policies, including free health care, easy credit, and rice crop subsidies.

The protesters and Ms. Yingluck are also supported by rival multi-millionaire business interests.

Mr. Suthep's protest has lost some support among those who previously expressed indulgence of his rallies.

For example, the staunchly royalist Bangkok Post in a Sunday (Feb. 2) editorial described Mr. Suthep's protest movement as "an anti-democracy mob" which was "undemocratic" and "unlawful."

Protected by bodyguards and protesters, Mr. Suthep has avoided arrest on an indictment for alleged multiple murders committed in 2010 when he was deputy prime minister for security affairs in the previous government.

Mr. Suthep worked with the military to crush a pro-democracy uprising in Bangkok during nine weeks of street clashes in 2010 which left 90 people dead, most of them pro-democracy Red Shirts and other civilians.

The 2010 murder charge against Mr. Suthep appears to be part of his attempt to topple the government and stop his opponents winning more elections.

If Mr. Suthep can install his own appointed technocrats, and "reform" the judiciary and police, it may delay his murder cases.

Mr. Suthep also faces a recent arrest warrant for alleged "insurrection" for leading the protest, punishable by life imprisonment or lethal injection.

Mr. Suthep is supported by Ms. Yingluck's enemies within a divided, politicized military allied with anti-Thaksin royalists, a right-wing "old money" elite, and Bangkok's middle-class.

ENDS

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