BANGKOK: Thailand’s ruling party called Monday for controversial polls to go ahead, despite widespread disruption to advance voting by opposition protesters who besieged polling stations and stopped hundreds of thousands from casting ballots.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has faced nearly three months of mass street protests demanding her elected government step down to make way for an unelected “people’s council” that would oversee reforms aimed at curbing the dominance of her billionaire family.
About 440,000 people out of 2 million registered for advance voting were prevented by demonstrators from casting their ballots Sunday, the election commission said.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has threatened to “close every route” to polling stations again for the Feb. 2 general elections, raising fears of further violence.
Ten people have been killed and hundreds injured in grenade attacks, drive-by shootings and street clashes since the protests began at the end of October.
An anti-government rally leader was shot dead Sunday while giving a speech from the back of a pickup truck in a Bangkok suburb.
Yingluck is due to meet elections authorities Tuesday to discuss a possible delay to the election, after the Constitutional Court ruled that the polls could legally be pushed back because of the civil strife.
But the head of her Puea Thai Party said Monday he opposed a postponement and accused the Election Commission – which favors a delay – of not doing enough to ensure an orderly vote.
“The EC is authorized to hold the election and Puea Thai as a political party fielding candidates does not agree with a postponement to the election,” Jarupong Ruangsuwan told AFP. “The EC is stubborn and wants the election to be postponed.”
“I think the Constitutional Court and the EC are coordinating with the protesters,” he added.
It was unclear whether his view reflected that of the government, which said it was ready to listen to the poll body’s comments at Tuesday’s meeting.
The opposition Democrats are boycotting the February polls, saying reforms are needed to ensure the vote is truly democratic and to prevent abuse of power by the next Cabinet.
In an interview with AFP, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said Monday that the opposition would consider taking part in a delayed vote. He called for talks to draw up a “road map where reforms can be initiated and we can set a reasonable timeframe for elections that would be accepted by all sides.”
Abhisit distanced himself from the protesters’ proposal for an unelected “people’s council” to run the country, saying that was not the demand of his party.
But he added that Yingluck “does not have the credibility” herself to oversee the reform process.
The kingdom has been bitterly divided since Yingluck’s older brother, the then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was overthrown by royalist generals in a coup more than seven years ago.
Critics accuse the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician of controlling his sister’s government from Dubai, where he lives to avoid prison for a corruption conviction.
His opponents have staged a self-styled “shutdown” of Bangkok since Jan. 13, erecting roadblocks and rally stages at several intersections, though attendance has gradually fallen and disruption has been limited.
The government has declared a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas, giving the authorities the power to ban public gatherings of more than five people, although they have not yet done so.
Labor Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who is overseeing the government’s security response, warned protesters Monday to vacate besieged state offices in the capital within 72 hours or face arrest, but the demonstrators rejected the demand.
When a state of emergency was last imposed in 2010 during pro-Thaksin protests, the government then led by Abhisit cracked down with armored vehicles and soldiers firing live rounds. More than 90 people were killed and nearly 1,900 injured.