Thais vote despite poll protests
Protesters trying to derail Thailand's national elections have forced the closure of hundreds of polling stations in a highly contentious vote that has become the latest flashpoint in the country's deepening political crisis.
Around the country, the vast majority of voting stations were open and polling proceeded relatively peacefully. Polling stations closed for the day with no reports of violent clashes, easing fears of bloodshed a day after gun battles in Bangkok left seven people wounded.
The national focus was riveted to the capital where 488 of the capital's 6,600 polling stations were shut and several skirmishes broke out between protesters intent on disrupting the vote and frustrated would-be voters. The Election Commission said the closure of polls affected more than six million registered voters.
In some cases, protesters formed blockades to prevent voters from entering polling stations. Elsewhere, protesters blocked the delivery of ballots and other election materials, preventing voting stations from opening. The Election Commission said that hundreds of polling stations in the south, an opposition stronghold, faced similar problems.
Angry voters at one Bangkok district stood outside closed voting stations waving their identification cards and shouting "Election! Election!"
"We have the right to vote. You don't have the right to take that away from us," said Sasikarn Wannachokechai, a 51-year-old Bangkok resident who said she had never missed a chance to vote.
The outcome of the vote will almost certainly be inconclusive. Because protesters blocked candidate registrations in some districts, parliament will not have enough members to convene. That means beleaguered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra 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.
Official results were not expected for weeks, with final counting delayed until all districts have voted. Advance voting that was scheduled for last Sunday but thwarted in many districts has now been rescheduled for late February.
The conflict pits demonstrators who say they want to suspend the country's fragile democracy to institute anti-corruption reforms against Ms Yingluck's supporters who know the election will not solve the nation's crisis but insist the right to vote should not be taken away.
The protesters, a minority that cannot win power at the polls, are demanding the government be replaced by an unelected council that would rewrite political and electoral laws to combat deep-seated problems of corruption and money politics. Ms Yingluck has refused to step down, arguing she is open to reform and that such a council would be unconstitutional.
"This is not a fair election," said Ampai Pittajit, 65, a retired civil servant helping to block ballot boxes in the Bangkok district of Ratchathewi. "I'm doing this because I want reforms before an election. I understand those who are saying this is violating their rights. But what about our rights to be heard?"
Fears of violence were high after a gun battle erupted at a busy Bangkok intersection between government supporters and protesters trying to block delivery of ballots. Among the injured was reporter for the local Daily News newspaper and American photojournalist, James Nachtwey, whose leg was grazed by a bullet.
The exchange of fire was the latest flare-up in a months-long campaign by protesters to overthrow Ms Yingluck's government, which they accuse of corruption. The violence crystallised the power struggle that has devolved into a battle of wills between the government and protesters - and those caught between who insist on their right to vote.
Under heavy police security, Ms Yingluck cast her vote at a polling station in north-eastern Bangkok, cheered on by supporters.
"Today is an important day," she told reporters. "I would like to invite Thai people to come out and vote to uphold democracy."
Voting was not as easy in other parts of Bangkok.
At one of the more volatile districts north of the capital, voters in Din Daeng scuffled with protesters and hurled bottles at each other under heavy police security. An Associated Press reporter saw a protester fire a gunshot after angry voters tried to push their way past a blockade. There were no injuries reported.
Dozens of voters demanding their right to vote broke into the Din Daeng district office, which was unable to distribute ballots to the neighbourhood's voting stations.
"We want an election. We are Thais," said Narong Meephol, a 63-year-old Bangkok resident, waving his identification card. "We are here to exercise our rights."
Elsewhere, one of Thailand's more colourful politicians Chuwit Kamolvisit, an independent candidate, got into a brawl with a group of protesters.
"They tried to attack me while I was trying to go vote," said Mr Chuwit, a tycoon who made a fortune operating massage parlours before turning to politics as an anti-corruption campaigner.
Since protests began three months ago, at least 10 people have been killed and nearly 600 wounded.
Police said more than 100,000 officers were deployed nationwide, while the army was putting 5,000 soldiers into Bangkok to boost security. More than 48 million people are registered to vote.