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Shooting sparks fear ahead of Thai polls
Publication Date : 02-02-2014
Thailand heads to the polls on Sunday fearful of more violence, hours after a shooting in Bangkok injured at least six people during a stand-off between pro- and anti-government groups.
The confrontation occurred on Saturday evening after pro-government "red shirt" supporters gathered near a Lak Si district office in the capital's outskirts to oppose a group trying to block the distribution of ballot papers.
A masked gunman began spraying bullets from an assault rifle, forcing passers-by to take cover in a shopping mall. The gunfire continued for more than an hour as terrified onlookers crouched for safety. Local media said a reporter was among the wounded.
The shooting was a grim reminder of the immense political challenges facing Asean's second largest economy as street protests aimed at ousting the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra enter their fourth month. The election is not expected to end the crisis soon, however. Polling results may not be known for weeks.
Yingluck's Puea Thai party remains the most dominant political force and is expected to win today's election. For this reason, protesters have blocked candidate registration, prevented advance voters from voting and halted the distribution of ballot papers in parts of the country.
On Saturday, as protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban defied a state of emergency to lead supporters in a march through Bangkok's Chinatown, the delivery of ballot papers in many southern provinces continued to be held up by blockades. Opposition to the election is fiercest in the capital and the south, which are the strongholds of the opposition Democrat Party, now boycotting the polls.
Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva announced he would not vote. "The election is unconstitutional and will not achieve the goal of a democratic election," he wrote on his Facebook page.
In Thailand's north and northeast, which are largely pro-Puea Thai, the preparation of the ballot papers and boxes went smoothly.
Protesters, who are supported by many among Thailand's elite, urban middle class as well as southern Thais, call Yingluck a puppet of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-exiled former premier unseated by a military coup in 2006. They argue that allowing the polls to go forward will perpetuate corruption and cronyism.
Their poll sabotage has angered growing numbers of Thais who are demanding their right to vote.
A high turnout today among the more than 48 million Thais scheduled to vote will undermine claims by protesters that they represent the majority will, say analysts.
Since snap polls were announced on December 9, campaigning by the 53 contesting political parties has been relatively feeble and overshadowed by protests in Bangkok. Chiang Mai-based political scientist Tanet Charoenmuang told The Sunday Times: "Most parties running against Puea Thai are not big enough or not good enough."
Puea Thai, however, will have to wait weeks, if not longer, to get its mandate because the election commission has to hold another round of polls on February 23 for about two million people who could not vote in advance on January 26. It also has to conduct another election to fill positions in 28 constituencies left vacant by protester blockades that prevented candidate registration.
In the meantime, the government would only have caretaking powers, unable to make important appointments or launch new projects. Even if Puea Thai gets its mandate, ongoing probes by the nation's anti-graft body could cripple its administration, plunging the country into further turmoil.