Thai Vote Fails to Ease Tensions as Protests Disrupt Poll

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 Oct. 31, official data show. The baht, which has weakened more than 5 percent in the same period against the dollar, rose 0.3 percent to 32.919 as of 12:44 p.m. in Bangkok, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The SET Index of shares gained 1.1 percent to 1,288.47 at the midday trading break.

Election Violence

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 595 injured since protests began, according to the Bangkok Emergency Medical Service.

“I am pleased with the overall situation because there was no violence,” Yingluck said yesterday. “I want to thank people who came out to protect democracy. This is a starting point.”

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.

Caretaker Government

Polling was abandoned completely in nine provinces and partially canceled in nine others, the commission said. About 20.5 million people voted yesterday, or 46 percent of eligible voters, excluding the nine southern provinces where polls were canceled, Puchong said today. In the 2011 election, turnout reached 75 percent.

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.

‘Step Aside’

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.

“The prime minister has to take that first step of admitting that these elections are getting us nowhere, that there needs to be talks, that there has to be postponement, that she may have to step aside so that people have the trust to have free and fair elections,” Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said today in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Bangkok.

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.

Protesters today removed blockades at Victory Monument and at Lad Prao in northern Bangkok because of security concerns, Suthep told supporters. They have occupied a number of major intersections in the city since Jan. 13 in a bid to prevent Yingluck’s government from functioning.

‘Not the Way’

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.”

Amnesty Bill

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.

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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