Thailand prepares for polls amid warning of ‘spiralling toward violence’

Over 100,000 police and 10,000 soldiers deployed nationwide as anti-government protesters threaten to block voting booths

Over 100,000 police and 10,000 soldiers will be deployed across Thailand on Sunday to protect voters and polling stations in a snap election that observers warn could lead to violence – with anti-government demonstrators threatening to block voting booths and pro-government redshirts vowing to “monitor” the polls.

So far 10 people have been killed and over 500 injured by grenade attacks and shootings since protests began in November calling for the ousting of the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in what rights groups say signals a “spiralling” toward violence.

Three months of protests have seen demonstrators lay siege to government ministries, shut off power and water to officials’ private homes, threaten to take the prime minister hostage and “shutdown” parts of downtown Bangkok with rally stages and ad hoc campsites.

Yingluck imposed a state of emergency last week and on Wednesday attempted to assuage voters’ fears to head to the polls to cast their votes. “I ask everyone involved in the election, particularly security forces, to ensure that people can go out and vote,” she told reporters.

The labour minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, who oversees the emergency decree, warned that anyone attempting to obstruct the vote would be met with official resistance.

“Those who are thinking of going and shutting polling stations in the morning should think twice because the police will not allow them to,” he said.

Roughly 2 million people were unable to cast advance votes last Sunday after protesters blocked roads, locked up polling booths and, in some instances, attacked voters.

With the opposition Democrat party boycotting Sunday’s vote, anti-government demonstrators – under the umbrella People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) – have vowed to stop voters once again from heading to the polls.

“Thailand is spiralling into political violence as opposition and pro-government groups respond tit for tat against attacks and provocations,” warned Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams. “Preventing people from casting ballots shows serious contempt for basic rights of voters and democratic principles.”

Given the peculiarity of the situation, Sunday’s election – estimated to cost 3.8bn baht, or £70m – could be rendered invalid, said election commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, as the constitution requires polls to be held nationwide within a single day, local media reported.

Up to 10,000 polling booths across Thailand are expected to be closed on Sunday, so byelections would need to take place in coming months to establish a parliamentary quorum. Some 28 constituencies in the south, where the Democrat party has a stronghold, have no candidates for Sunday’s election after protesters prevented registration from taking place last month.

Protesters are calling for the immediate ousting of Yingluck – who they see as a proxy of her brother Thaksin, the former premier who was himself ousted in a military coup in 2006 and now lives in Dubai to avoid jail on corruption charges – and are calling for her government to be replaced with an unelected “people’s council” instead.

They point to a failed billion-dollar rice subsidy scheme, alleged corruption and an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return without having to serve his corruption charge as reasons why they want “reform before election”.

Yingluck’s ruling Puea Thai party, or versions of it, have won every election for the past 10 years and are expected to win Sunday’s poll too, putting the Democrat party in a losing position that critics claim is the reason they prefer to boycott Sunday’s election.

In a nation that has seen 18 coups or attempted coups since 1932, many observers believe that unrest on Sunday could once again prompt either the military or the judiciary to step in to prevent violence. Thai courts have in the past forced pro-Thaksin governments from power, and this week a criminal court rejected the government’s proposed arrest warrant for PDRC leader and former deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban – who is facing insurrection and murder charges for his role in the 2010 anti-government protests that saw 100 people killed and 2,000 injured – citing insufficient evidence.

Suthep himself has also faced corruption charges, a confounding twist for a leader attempting to “rid” Thailand of the very same thing.

“It is so ironic that people like him [Suthep] can become leader of an anti-corruption group,” agrees Somkiat Tangkitvanich of the thinktank Thailand Development Research Institute. “But people have gathered to support the PDRC because they would like to express their dissatisfaction with the current government – so they’re not for someone, but they’re against someone.”

Late on Friday in Bangkok, high-profile supporters of the PDRC, including former yellowshirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul, took to rally stages to ask voters if there really was any value in a core staple of democracy.

“What good is your right [to vote] if they [this government] don’t respect your rights anyway?” Sondhi asked the crowd, prompting a loud show of whistle-blowing, clapping and cheering. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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