Demonstrators disregard Thai poll, vow march to oust PM
Protesters demanding the right to vote argue with security and election officials at a Din Dang district office where voting was called off in Bangkok February 2, 2014. Photo Credit: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
BANGKOK - Thai anti-government protesters planned to forge ahead on Monday with efforts to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a day after a disrupted election that is unlikely to settle the country's long-running political conflict.
The demonstrators blocked balloting in a fifth of the country's constituencies and say Yingluck must resign and make way for an appointed "people's council" to overhaul a political system they say has been taken hostage by her billionaire brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Sunday's election, which the main opposition party boycotted, is almost certain to return Yingluck to power and with voting passing off peacefully across the north and northeast, Yingluck's supporters will no doubt claim a legitimate mandate.
But the vote is unlikely to change the dysfunctional status quo in a country popular among tourists and investors yet blighted by eight years of polarization and turmoil, pitting the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poor, rural supporters of the Shinawatras.
Apart from a few scuffles, the election was peaceful, with no repeat of the chaos seen the previous day, when supporters and opponents of Yingluck clashed in north Bangkok, with seven wounded by gunshots or explosions.
Voting was disrupted in 18 percent of constituencies, 69 out of 375, nationwide, the Election Commission said, affecting 18 of 77 provinces. Neither the result nor the turnout were announced.
The disruptions mean it could be weeks before parliamentary seats are filled, so Yingluck will remain a caretaker with no policy authority.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban told a crowd of supporters he would lead a rally to a central Bangkok park on Monday. He vowed to press on with his bid, launched in November, to rid politics of the influence of the Shinawatra family.
But the vote should offer Yingluck some cheer.
"Having gone through more than two months of protests, the election will strengthen Yingluck's position, but her troubles are not over yet," said Kan Yuanyong, director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank.
"We'll see a continuation of the conflict, the standoff remains and the likelihood of more violence could increase."
The Election Commission said it expected legal challenges to be lodged as early as Monday to try to invalidate the poll and attack the legitimacy of the government
Yingluck said the election was a "positive signal", but a lasting solution was needed.
"This election is part of the democratic process," she told reporters. "I hope all sides can help solve each of the country's problems."
The protesters say former telecoms tycoon Thaksin has subverted a fragile democracy with money politics and populism, doling out subsidies, cheap loans and healthcare to woo the poor and guarantee victory for his parties in every election since 2001.
Thaksin's critics also accuse him of disrespecting the monarchy, which he denies.
The anti-Shinawatra demonstrators enjoy broad support from southerners and Bangkok's middle class and are tacitly backed by a royalist oligarchy that sees Thaksin as a corrupt crony capitalist and resents the rapid rise of his political order.
Thaksin has lived abroad since 2008 to avoid a jail term for a graft conviction he says was politically motivated. Critics say Yingluck is merely a stand-in for him.
Thaksin's supporters accuse the military and the establishment, including the judiciary, of colluding over the years to oust his governments. The military, which has staged numerous coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, overthrew Thaksin in 2006 but has stayed aloof this time.
With several cases against Yingluck and her party taken up by the courts, Thaksin's supporters fear judges might intervene again and they have threatened to stage their own protests if the government is ousted, by the courts or the military.
Sunday's election was in stark contrast to three years ago, when Yingluck quit her job as a company executive and helped her Puea Thai Party win an election in a landslide, running on the campaign slogan "Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai acts".