, BANGKOK, Feb 2 – Thailand is set for a turbulent election Sunday, with opposition protesters vowing to besiege polling stations a day after gun battles between pro and anti government groups in the capital heightened fears of ongoing political unrest in the kingdom.
The snap poll was called by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in an unsuccessful attempt to quell rising tensions in the nation, which has seen three months of sometimes bloody rallies aimed at toppling her government.
Protesters want the election delayed by a year or more so an unelected “people’s council” can implement vaguely defined reforms to expunge the influence of Yingluck’s divisive brother Thaksin a former premier ousted in a 2006 coup that unleashed a cycle of political unrest in the country.
Voting comes just a day after explosions and heavy gunfire rattled a northern Bangkok suburb in clashes between government supporters and opposition demonstrators that left at least six people injured and sent bystanders fleeing bullets into a local shopping mall.
“This is a very worrying sign for what could happen” during polling, said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with New York based Human Rights Watch, who witnessed the pitched street battle.
“It is very very important for leaders of both sides to completely reject violence We cannot afford more casualties in Thailand,” he told AFP.
Saturday’s clashes happened after demonstrators blocking ballot boxes from being delivered from the Lak Si district office one of 50 in the capital were confronted by scores of government supporters, some armed with sticks and metal bars.
At least 10 people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes, grenade attacks and drive-by shootings since the opposition rallies began.
Each side in the bitterly divided kingdom routinely blames the other for the violence.
Thailand’s long running political struggle pits its royalist establishment backed by the courts and the military against Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon turned politician who lives in Dubai to avoid a prison term for graft.
The latest unrest is the worst political bloodshed in the kingdom since 2010 protests by pro-Thaksin Red Shirts that left more than 90 dead and nearly 1,900 injured after clashes and a brutal military crackdown.
Authorities said Saturday they were boosting security around the polls, with both police and soldiers on the capital’s streets.
But the government has so far appeared reluctant to use force against the rallies, despite declaring a state of emergency last month.
The elite-backed opposition Democrat Party which has not won an elected majority in around two decades is boycotting the vote.
This leaves the field open for Yingluck, who is expected to win the polls helped by strong electoral support among rural and urbanised communities from Thaksin’s northeastern heartlands.
But disruption by demonstrators to candidate registrations means that if Yingluck wins she will still remain in a caretaker role with limited power over government policy until by elections are held to ensure there are enough MPs to convene parliament.
Election officials have warned that the result may not be known for months because of problems caused by the protests.
Advance voting in parts of the country, including Bangkok, on January 26 was marred by blockades by opposition protesters who stopped hundreds of thousands of people from casting ballots.