Thailand elections: Polls close peacefully, but disruptions mean results won't come for three weeks
Polls across Thailand closed peacefully despite a boycott by the country's main opposition party, but voting disruptions in some districts including in Bangkok means there will be no results for at least three weeks.
Voting was normal in the north and north-east, but in some parts of Bangkok and elsewhere in southern Thailand, voters were prevented by anti-government protesters from casting their ballots, election officials said.
The Election Commission said 89% of polling stations nationwide were able to function, but 18 provinces were closed by protesters, 9 of them entirely. In Bangkok, turnout appeared to be low - but the ruling Puea Thai party's election director Sompong Amonwiwat estimated national turnout at 70 per cent, roughly on par with recent elections.
In the Bangkok districts where protesters blocked polling stations, many voters expressed frustration.
Election commission officials appeared to cave in quickly to protesters from the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), who blockaded polling stations and surrounded district offices to prevent ballot boxes from being sent to polling stations at all.
Voting was suspended or did not even begin, in nine provinces in the south, and in 488 polling stations in Bangkok - out of more than 6,500.
Under Thailand's laws, by-elections can be held within three weeks to complete voting, officials said. That means a clear result from the election is not expected before February 23.
Mr Banchong Sukdee, deputy permanent secretary of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, was quoted as saying "The result will have to wait until the election is fully completed, otherwise it would mislead the public.".
Mr Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for the independent Human Rights Watch, expressed relief that there was no major incident, or bloodshed.
"But still," he said, "the disenfranchisement is very worrying. Clearly the Election Commission is unable to stop the protesters from blocking the voting, so there is no assurance that this will not be repeated."
Given the boycott by the Democrat Party, the ruling Puea Thai party is expected to win.
But it will not be a conventional win. In the interim before the results are announced, there will be no parliament. Analysts expect a long period of paralysis as the beleaguered caretaker government clings to power in the face of multiple legal challenges and pressure from street protests.
In the capital, prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra voted in the morning, and army chief general Prayuth Chan-ocha in the afternoon. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose party is boycotting the election, did not vote.
Minor incidents occurred in Bangkok - including a scuffle involving former independent MP Chuwit Kamolwisit, and a brief confrontation between voters and anti-election protesters where a gunshot was heard. There were no fatalities or injuries. While well over 100,000 police were deployed nationwide, most polling stations had only a light security presence. Army soldiers deployed in Bangkok were unarmed.
In the north eastern city of Khon Kaen - in the heartland of the ruling Puea thai party's support base - Mr.Sunthon Phayakmalerng, 37, who owns a workshop making car seats, told The Straits Times: "I am happy, finally I can make my voice heard and want this election to tell protesters in Bangkok to stop, that the rest of us still want this democratic system."
In the northern city of Chiang Mai - home town of the Shinawatra clan whose influence the PDRC has vowed to "eradicate", a 68-year-old retired civil servant who declined to give her name, said: "Who gave PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban the power to order everyone not to go vote? In school, they taught us that democracy is the best way to rule a country. I see no way out of this problem but I put my faith in democracy and elections."