BANGKOK: Gunfire rang out at a major intersection Thailand’s capital on Saturday as clashes between protesters and government supporters erupted on the eve of tense nationwide elections. At least seven people were wounded, including an American photojournalist.
The confrontation began after a group of pro-government supporters marched to a district office in northern Bangkok containing ballot boxes that had been surrounded by protesters who have been trying to derail the vote.
The two sides clashed first with rocks and firecrackers, then with pistols and assault rifles. One group of men carrying huge sticks smashed the windshields of a car carrying protesters that sped away. People caught up in the mayhem took refuge inside a nearby shopping mall and ducked on a pedestrian bridge. Some crouched behind vehicles.
According to the city’s emergency services, at least six Thais were wounded, including a reporter for the local Daily News newspaper. An American photojournalist, James Nachtwey, was shot in the leg, according to Associated Press staff on the scene.
The violence came one day ahead of a highly unusual ballot that has little to do with the traditional contests between rival candidates vying for office. Instead, the vote is shaping up as a battle of wills between protesters and the government — and those caught in between who insist on their civil rights.
On the one side are demonstrators who say they want to suspend the country’s fragile democracy to institute anti-corruption reforms, and on the other, forces supporting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and civilians who know the election will do little to solve the nation’s crisis but insist the right to vote should not be taken away.
“How did we get to this point?” asked Chanida Pakdeebanchasak, a 28-year-old Bangkok resident who was determined to cast her ballot Sunday no matter what happens. “Since when does going to vote mean you don’t love the country?“
The protesters, a minority that cannot win power at the polls, are demanding the government be replaced by an unelected council that would implement political and electoral reforms to combat deep-seated problems of corruption and money politics. Yingluck has refused to step down, arguing she is open to reform and such a council would be unconstitutional.
The crisis — which has killed 10 people and wounded nearly 600 since November — has almost completely overshadowed campaigning. Instead of stump speeches and electrified rallies for candidates hoping to take office, Thailand’s muted capital has been gripped by a palpable sense of dread and uncertainty over whether demonstrators will physically block voters from getting inside polling centers.
Campaign posters bearing Yingluck’s images have been ripped apart and punched through, defaced with a blunt message for her beleaguered government: “Get Out.”
Although unrest already hit Bangkok and polling stations may not open in some parts of the south if ballot materials don’t arrive in time, voting is expected to proceed smoothly in most of the country.
Police said they will deploy 100,000 officers nationwide, while the army is putting 5,000 soldiers in Bangkok to boost security. More than 47 million people are registered to vote.
Whatever happens, the outcome of Sunday’s election will almost certainly be inconclusive. Because protesters have already blocked candidate registration in some districts, Parliament will not have enough members to convene. That means Yingluck will be unable to form a government or even pass a budget, and Thailand will be stuck in political limbo for months as by-elections are run in constituencies that were unable to vote.
A power vacuum may entice the military to step in and declare a coup as it did in 2006, when Yingluck’s elder brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was deposed. Thaksin lives in exile but has remained a central — and highly polarizing — figure in Thailand’s political strife ever since. The rural majority in the north adore him for his populist policies, such as virtually free health care, while Bangkok’s elite and many in the south consider him and his family a corrupting influence on the country. Protesters say Yingluck is a puppet of her billionaire brother.
Another possibility is what is being called a “judicial coup.” Analysts say the courts and the country’s independent oversight agencies all tilt heavily against the Shinawatras’ political machine, and Yingluck’s opponents are already studying legal justifications to nullify Sunday’s vote.
“I think probably we are moving toward a judicial coup of some sort,” said Chris Baker, a Bangkok-based political analyst and writer. “I think we are moving toward a position in which some part of the judicial machinery, be it the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Constitutional Court, some combination of this, will somehow bring down this government.”
The protests began in earnest late last year after the ruling party tried to push through an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return from exile.
Desperate to defuse the crisis, Yingluck dissolved the lower house of Parliament in December and called new elections. But protests only intensified, and Yingluck — now a caretaker prime minister with limited powers — has found herself increasingly cornered. Thai courts have begun fast-tracking cases that could see Yingluck or her party banished from power, and the army has pointedly left open the possibility of intervening again if the crisis is not resolved peacefully.
Protesters have occupied half a dozen major intersections in Bangkok, barricading roads and forcing government ministries to shut down or work from backup offices.
Last week, demonstrators chained polling stations shut and stopped hundreds of thousands of people from casting advance ballots, sparking violence that left one protester dead.
This time around, the Election Commission has signaled its intention to cancel balloting in eight southern provinces — a stronghold of the protesters who surrounded post offices there to prevent electoral materials from being delivered.
“There’s no point casting your ballot when the people who will get to Parliament are the same old crooks,” said Wanida Srithongphan, a 43-year-old protester from southern Thailand. “It’s a waste of money.”
Associated Press journalists Papitchaya Boonngok, Hau Dinh, Thanyarat Doksone, Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul, Andi Jatmiko, Wally Santana and Jinda Wedel contributed to this report.