Thailand set for advance voting despite rally disruption
Thai anti government protesters walk on a street during a doctor and nurses march outside Central Chitlom shopping complex during ongoing rallies in Bangkok on January 20, 2014 - by Nicolas Asfouri
Over two million people are registered for the advanced vote ahead of the February 2 election, which was called by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in an attempt to defuse rising political tensions after weeks of mass anti-government protests.
Demonstrators, who have staged a near two-week so-called "shutdown" of the Thai capital in an effort to derail the vote, have rejected the election and vowed to congregate around polling stations.
They want to topple the government and install an unelected "people's council" to implement loosely-defined reforms that they hope would rid Thailand of the influence of ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra -- Yingluck's older brother.
There is mounting uncertainty over whether elections will take place on schedule, after the country's Constitutional Court on Friday ruled that the February polls could legally be delayed because of the crisis.
Yingluck, who has so far refused to resign or delay the poll, is set to meet Election Commission officials on Tuesday.
The commission, which has called for a delay to the poll on several occasions, has said the advance voting will still go ahead.
But the group's secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong said individual polling stations could decide to postpone voting for a week "if there is blockade or roadblock or any sign that violence could happen".
Nine people have been killed and hundreds injured during nearly three months of protests that have sparked international concern and investor fears over the country's economy.
Sunday's advance voting is seen as a litmus test for the possibility of holding the election without violence.
Protesters have said they will surround polling stations from early morning, but insist their actions will not obstruct voters.
Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, said protesters in the southern province of Krabi had on Saturday stopped election officials from setting up a polling booth, adding it sent a "very worrying signal" for Sunday's voting.
He said it was unclear how the protesters would enact their plan to "persuade" people not to vote without blocking them from doing so.
"What if they refuse to comply? This is a slippery slope and could easily turn into intimidation of voters," Sunai said.
Thailand's political system has been left deeply fractured by years of political turmoil that began shortly before Thaksin was deposed in a military coup in 2006.
The crisis roughly pits Thaksin's supporters from rural and urbanised communities in the north and northeast against his foes within the country's elite, the Bangkok middle classes and parts of the south.
The billionaire tycoon-turned-politician -- who lives abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption that he says was politically motivated -- has won every election since 2001 either directly or more recently through allied parties.
But his opponents accuse him of corruption, "vote buying" and pushing through expensive populist policies to strengthen his electoral position.
The main opposition Democrat Party, which has not won an elected majority in some two decades, is boycotting the latest polls.
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