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Thailand election will proceed despite threats

BANGKOK, Thailand — A controversial election in Thailand will proceed as scheduled Sunday despite threats of continued violence from antigovernment protesters and fear that the result will only deepen the country's eight-year political crisis.

Thai election officials initially called for the parliamentary elections to be postponed six months because of the unrest. But the election commission relented after meeting Tuesday with beleaguered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who has pushed for the vote to proceed because she believes that it will strengthen her slipping grip on power.

Protesters who have called for Yingluck to give up power disrupted advance voting that began Sunday, shutting down 19 of 50 polling stations in Bangkok and many more in the southern provinces. One prominent protest leader, Suthin Tharathin, was shot and killed near a Bangkok polling station. Another leading protester has vowed to block all voting places in the capital on election day.

Underscoring the threat of violence, about 500 antigovernment protesters gathered Tuesday outside a military facility, advancing toward a police barricade as election commissioners held talks with Yingluck inside. On the street nearby, at least two people were injured by gunfire, news agencies reported.

Yingluck, who has been leading a caretaker government with few powers, called the parliamentary elections in December in hope of solidifying her power and calming the protests. But the push for elections has only worsened Thailand's political crisis and emboldened the protesters, who want to eliminate what they regard as the Shinawatra clan's corrupt influence over national politics.

Although Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party are popular in rural areas, the urban Bangkok elite see her as a puppet of her brother, ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications mogul whom many accuse of corruption and nepotism.

The most recent turmoil was sparked by the party's proposal of an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand from self-imposed exile in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, without facing charges.

Ten people have died in the nearly three months of protests that have seen parts of Bangkok, a swarming metropolis of about 9 million people, completely shut down. The government this month declared a 60-day state of emergency to try to avert election violence.

Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told reporters before the meeting Tuesday that the vote should go forward "because the majority of people want the election." Government supporters say advance voting in the north and northeast went smoothly, and that antigovernment protesters represent a minority of Thai voters.

The protesters' battle cry of "Shinawatras, out!" is framed as a stand against corruption, but beyond calling for a council of respected citizens to replace Thailand's elected legislature, the movement has put forward few concrete reform proposals.

Because of its broad support in the countryside, Yingluck's party is likely to win a landslide Sunday, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the South East Asian Institute of Global Studies at Payap University in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. But the result could spark further turmoil if the election commission chooses not to endorse the result, he said.

Notably, Chambers said, military chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has not come forward to support the government's position, leaving open the possibility that the army could side with protesters.

"The situation is truly bizarre," Chambers said. "It's like a slow-motion coup."

Special correspondent Paluch reported from Bangkok and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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