Protests force poll stations to shut

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Protesters trying to derail Thailand’s national elections have forced the closure of hundreds of polling stations in a highly contentious vote that has become the latest flashpoint in the country’s deepening political crisis.

Around the country, the vast majority of voting stations were open and polling proceeded relatively peacefully.

Polling stations closed for the day with no reports of violent clashes, easing fears of bloodshed a day after gun battles in Bangkok left seven people wounded.

The national focus was riveted to the capital where 488 of the capital’s 6,600 polling stations were shut and several skirmishes broke out between protesters intent on disrupting the vote and frustrated would-be voters.

The Election Commission said the closure of polls affected more than six million registered voters.

In some cases, protesters formed blockades to prevent voters from entering polling stations. Elsewhere, protesters blocked the delivery of ballots and other election materials, preventing voting stations from opening.

The Election Commission said that hundreds of polling stations in the south, an opposition stronghold, faced similar problems.

Angry voters at one Bangkok district stood outside closed voting stations waving their identification cards and shouting “Election! Election!”

“We have the right to vote. You don’t have the right to take that away from us,” said Sasikarn Wannachokechai, a 51-year-old Bangkok resident who said she had never missed a chance to vote.

The outcome of the vote will almost certainly be inconclusive. Because protesters blocked candidate registrations in some districts, parliament will not have enough members to convene.

That means beleaguered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will be unable to form a government or even pass a budget, and Thailand will be stuck in political limbo for months as by-elections are run in constituencies that were unable to vote.

Official results were not expected for weeks, with final counting delayed until all districts have voted.

Advance voting that was scheduled for last Sunday but thwarted in many districts has now been rescheduled for late February.

The conflict pits demonstrators who say they want to suspend the country’s fragile democracy to institute anti-corruption reforms against Ms Yingluck’s supporters who know the election will not solve the nation’s crisis but insist the right to vote should not be taken away.

The protesters, a minority that cannot win power at the polls, are demanding the government be replaced by an unelected council that would rewrite political and electoral laws to combat deep-seated problems of corruption and money politics. Ms Yingluck has refused to step down, arguing she is open to reform and that such a council would be unconstitutional.

“This is not a fair election,” said Ampai Pittajit, 65, a retired civil servant helping to block ballot boxes in the Bangkok district of Ratchathewi. “I’m doing this because I want reforms before an election. I understand those who are saying this is violating their rights. But what about our rights to be heard?”

Fears of violence were high after a gun battle erupted at a busy Bangkok intersection between government supporters and protesters trying to block delivery of ballots.

Among the injured was reporter for the local Daily News newspaper and American photojournalist, James Nachtwey, whose leg was grazed by a bullet.

The exchange of fire was the latest flare-up in a months-long campaign by protesters to overthrow Ms Yingluck’s government, which they accuse of corruption.