Thai Vote Fails to Ease Tensions as Protesters Disrupt Election

Thai voters cast ballots across almost 90 percent of the country yesterday, defying efforts of protesters who disrupted polling stations in a general election where the results may not be certified for several months.

Voting went ahead in 83,669 of the nation’s 93,952 polling stations, said Puchong Nutrawong, secretary-general of the Election Commission. Scuffles broke out between protesters and voters in parts of Bangkok, and people in some districts couldn’t vote because officials didn’t turn up for work.

The country’s third general election since a 2006 coup will do little to quell street protests by groups demanding Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s resignation and the installation of an appointed government. The results of the poll, which the main opposition Democrat Party boycotted, won’t be announced until by-elections are held in dozens of districts where protesters blocked candidates from registering.

“The election won’t solve the political deadlock,” said Win Udomrachtavanich, chief executive officer of Bangkok-based One Asset Management Co., which oversees about $2.8 billion of assets. “A lot of people, including me, couldn’t cast their vote, so I expect the formation of a new government isn’t likely for at least six to eight months.”

Global funds pulled about $4.7 billion from Thai bonds and equities since the protests began on Oct. 31, official data show. The baht has weakened 5.6 percent during the same period against the dollar and the SET Index of domestic shares slumped about 14 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Gun Battle

Yingluck deployed 10,000 police in Bangkok yesterday, having declared a state of emergency to avoid a repeat of the violence that obstructed advance voting on Jan. 26 in the south and most of the capital. Ten people have been killed and almost 600 injured since protests began.

“I am pleased with the overall situation because there was no violence,” Yingluck told reporters after polls closed at 3 p.m. local time. “I want to thank people who came out to protect democracy. This is a starting point, and it’s a good signal to solve the problems in a peaceful way.”

Voting was unaffected in all 36 provinces in Yingluck’s strongholds in the north and northeast, according to the commission. In the south, where the protest movement has its power base, voting went ahead in six provinces, Puchong said at a media briefing. Polling was abandoned completely in nine provinces and partially canceled in nine others, the commission said.

Caretaker Government

A disputed poll will leave Yingluck’s administration in caretaker mode, complicating its efforts to raise funds to pay rice farmers under a state subsidy program. Yingluck also faces a probe into the rice program by the National Anti-Corruption Commission that could lead to impeachment.

Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat powerbroker who has led a three-month campaign to oust Yingluck, said the election will be annulled because his group blocked candidates from registering in some provinces and shut down polling stations during advance voting. Protesters have also occupied several major intersections in the city since Jan. 13 in a bid to prevent Yingluck’s government from functioning.

“I really doubt that this election result will be allowed to stand,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University. The Constitutional Court will probably annul the result, he said, which could spur clashes between Yingluck’s supporters and opponents. “2014 will thus not bring any resolution but rather see Thailand descend into more distrust and conflict.”

‘Silent Majority’

Suthep says he speaks for a “silent majority” who don’t want elections until Yingluck is replaced with an appointed council that would erase what they call her family’s corrupting political influence. Yingluck says such a council would be undemocratic and an affront to the almost 16 million people who elected her in 2011.

Suthep said late yesterday that he will lead supporters today in a march from Lad Phrao in Bangkok’s northern suburbs to Victory Monument and Lumpini Park, and vowed to continue efforts to disrupt Yingluck’s ministries.

The Election Commission had called on the government to delay the poll, warning the political situation was too tense for the vote to be held peacefully. Yingluck and her advisers said it was not in their power to do so, and the government has accused the commission of trying to undermine the poll.

“Voting is the only way to protect the system,” said Supakorn Rojanajirapa, 66, who worked for a state power utility before retirement and who went yesterday to vote at a polling station at a temple near his house. “We need a government that comes from elections. An appointed government is not the way democracy works. It’s dictatorial. In a democracy, people must have the right to pick their government.”

No Parliament

Suthep’s protesters prevented candidates from registering to contest at least 28 seats in the lower house, meaning the threshold of 475 out of 500 seats for a quorum will not be met and a government can’t be formed. The commission has said it may be three to four months before parliament can open.

Yingluck called the elections on Dec. 9, a day after Democrat members resigned from parliament en masse to join their former colleagues in the protest movement, which began in disapproval of an amnesty bill that would have let the prime minister’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, return to Thailand. Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup, has chosen to live overseas after fleeing a two-year jail term for corruption.

Poor Voters

The Democrats say an election wouldn’t be fair because Thaksin bought the loyalty of poor voters while in power. They have criticized the government’s program to boost rural incomes by buying rice at above-market rates, which cost taxpayers $21 billion in the past two crop years starting October 2011. The program has accumulated losses of 200 billion baht ($6.1 billion) a year, according to estimates from the World Bank.

Thaksin’s political allies, who have won the past five elections, say their popularity is based on policies that have improved the lives of millions, particularly in the north and northeast. The Democrats haven’t won a national poll since 1992.

The Democrats previously boycotted a ballot in April 2006, when Thaksin was prime minister, on the grounds the political system needed reform. That vote was invalidated when a court found Thaksin’s party guilty of violating election laws. Thaksin was ousted before another election could be held.

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