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Asia

Protesters disrupt voting in Thai election

Ballot-box blockades and a shortage of election staff prevented the smooth running of the Thai general poll. The full result won't be known for weeks, meaning little change to the current political crisis.

As many as six million Thais - one-fifth of the electorate - were prevented from voting on Sunday, February 2, in the country's bitterly divisive election, according to Thailand's Election Commission. Anti-government protesters blockaded dozens of polling stations in the capital Bangkok and nine southern provinces where support for the ruling Pheu Thai party is weakest.

However, voting went ahead without any problems in the ruling party's stronghold in the north and north-east. "It is important to show our support for the government which has been good to us and is working for the people," Sirimivol Thipataya, a resident of the northern city of Chiang Mai, told DW.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who's been battling a massive opposition movement for several months, called the snap election in an attempt to ward off a deepening political crisis.

hai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra casts her vote in s ballot box at a polling station in Bangkok on February 2, 2014.

Opponents accuse Yingluck of being a puppet of her self-exiled brother and former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra

Her party is expected to win the poll. However, the disruptions mean that it could take weeks before the overall winner is announced and months before parliament can reconvene. Officials said results could only be announced when voting has taken place throughout the whole country.

Voters sent home

Sunday's poll saw 130,000 police and soldiers deployed to ensure a peaceful outcome. A state of emergency was declared in Bangkok and nearby provinces ahead of the election after outbreaks of protest-related violence saw several people shot and wounded.

Officials say almost 90 percent of polling stations operated normally on Sunday. But in the capital Bangkok and the south, voters were sent home after protesters prevented ballot boxes and papers from reaching their destinations. In addition, inadequate staffing levels at several other stations saw tens of thousands more people being turned away.

Further disruption was felt by the absence of the main opposition party, the Democrats, whose MPs boycotted the election. Their leader Abhisit Vejjajiva even refused to cast his vote, potentially jeopardising his place in the next parliament as voting is compulsory in Thailand.

'Waste of money'

Hours before the polls got under way, nine people were injured during clashes in the north of Bangkok. The district's election staff declared the area unsafe and resigned en masse, thus preventing the vote across several suburbs.

Watch video 00:38

Voting ends in divisive Thai election

"I couldn't vote because the clashes took place near my house," said local resident Pimnapas Kerdpol. When asked whether she supported the protesters, she told DW: "I haven't really taken sides. But I think the election was a waste of time and money."

Costing 85 million euros, the snap election was called in a bid to end massive anti-government demonstrations which erupted after parliament voted down an amnesty bill which officials said sought to reconcile Thailand's decade-long political crisis.

Opponents accused PM Yingluck of using the bill to get her brother and former premier Thaksin pardoned. The former leader, now living in self-imposed exile, was overthrown in a military coup in 2006 and received a prison sentence in absentia after being found guilty of corruption and abuse of power.

Shifting support

While Thaksin has strong support among the poor and working class in much of rural Thailand, he is disliked by the middle-classes in Bangkok and the south. "I agree with the protesters," a government worker in Bangkok told DW. "Thaksin had many cases of corruption and Yingluck is like his shadow. The corruption will return again," the woman said on the condition of anonymity.

Many protesters think that while the government remains popular in parts of the country, its fortunes are waning. A controversial rice subsidy scheme worth millions of euros was pledged to rural supporters in the 2011 election. But the latest political crisis has seen payouts delayed, leading many farmers to steer their support towards the opposition movement.

Election invalidated?

Some analysts believe Sunday's poll could be annulled. Under the royal decree, the election should be held nationwide, on one single day. A legal challenge could be mounted as it may take three voting days to reach a result.

Already, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has vowed to sue Prime Minister Yingluck for wasting public money. He described a low turnout on Sunday that saw just a trickle of voters at some polling stations at any one time.

The opposition Democrats say they'll also seek a ruling from the constitutional court on whether the vote should be invalidated because of the decision to proceed despite the disruption. Protest leaders aim to replace the government with a non-elected 'People's Council'.

Residents are protest weary

Even before voting got under way in all but 42 constituencies, the protest movement had been successful in disrupting the electoral process at several stages. Last month, dozens of candidates were prevented from registering for Sunday's vote. As a result, a total of 28 constituencies had no candidates and a further 16 had only one registered candidate.

Moreover, early voting was disrupted in several provinces last weekend and an estimated half a million Thais were prevented from casting their ballot. For this reason, the election commission has scheduled an additional round of polling on February 23 to allow these people to vote.

An anti-government protester throws a tear gas canister towards policemen during clashes at the Thai-Japan youth stadium in central Bangkok December 26, 2013.

The election was overshadowed by months of anti-government demonstrations

Thailand's House of Representatives is made up of 500 seats, 375 from constituency MPs. A further 125 seats are allocated based on the percentage of votes each party wins.

Due to the many disruptions, the results of Sunday's election will not deliver a parliamentary quorum, so by-elections will be needed in constituencies where voting has not taken place. It seems that there is still no end in sight to the political wrangling that has brought much of the capital to a standstill, seen 10 people killed and nearly 600 injured.

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