BANGKOK — While early voting in Thailand's general elections proceeded smoothly in the governing party's stronghold in the northern provinces, anti- government protesters disrupted most voting in Bangkok, raising tensions for the week ahead. The Thai government is holding to the election schedule, despite calls by protesters for broad political reforms before voting takes place.
Senior Thai ministers say the government is to press ahead with general elections scheduled for February 2, despite efforts by anti-government protesters to disrupt advanced voting Sunday and fears of violence.
The Election Commission said 440,000 people were unable to cast advance votes Sunday as 89 of the 375 constituencies nationally were closed. Voters were seen at polling stations waving their national identification cards to cast their vote outside shuttered polling stations.
In Bangkok, most affected by the protests, just five of 50 polling stations successfully opened. Voting was also disrupted in Thailand's southern provinces, a base of support for the opposition Democrat Party which is boycotting the February vote.
But Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, said the government would press on with elections as early voting went ahead smoothly elsewhere in Thailand, especially in the northern regions, a stronghold of the governing Pheu Thai Party.
Senior Pheu Thai Party adviser Samarn Lertwongrath says there appears to be general support for the election to go ahead.
"People still really want to vote, North and Northeast even some protests but they have to let the people vote," said Samarn. "I think the Prime Minister (Yingluck) will insist on that principle, voting on February 2. I mean voting is for democracy, no voting is against democracy. We will not allow that to happen and (voting) according to the constitution."
Anti-government protesters arrived at polling booths before voting began at 8.30 am, leading the Election Commission to cancel voting in those districts.
A clash between protesters and government supporters led to the shooting death of a protest leader and left three injured, raising fears of further bloodshed ahead of the polls.
The anti-government movement, the People's Democratic Reform Council (PDRC) has been calling for the elections to be postponed and wants broad-based political reforms in place before fresh elections.
PDRC spokesman, Akanat Promphan, says while postponing the vote will ease tensions; the council is still seeking political reforms and the resignation of Yingluck's government.
"What we are asking for is not to postpone elections, we are asking for reform before elections," said Akanat. "So even if the election is postponed it doesn't really answer our (needs). The people want reform before election and we will demonstrate until we can achieve that. That should start the process with Yingluck stepping down."
Thailand's constitutional court last week ruled the five member Election Commission has the power to postpone the vote but called on the commission to meet with Yingluck, with talks scheduled for Tuesday.
The government says it is stepping up efforts to arrest the protest leaders since Bangkok and surrounding provinces were placed under a state of emergency last week for up to 60 days.
Protesters charge Yingluck's older brother, former leader, Thaksin Shinawatram ousted in a 2006 coup and who lives in exile to avoid a jail term for corruption, continues to wield substantial influence over the government.
Kraisak Choonhavan, a member of the opposition Democrat Party, who addressed an ant-government rally Saturday night, says restraint is needed but charges the government with abuses and budget excesses in its populist economic policies.
"It's necessary for each side to step, to take a step backward and assess each other's situation," said Kraisak. "I'm afraid, this is the most difficult part in the history of Thailand because in the past, past tyrants could stop being tyrants right away if they see massive amounts of discontent as we are seeing today."
Tens of thousands of largely urban residents protested after a government-sponsored blanket amnesty bill, later annulled, was seen as enabling Thaksin to return to Thailand a free man.
The protests are calling for wider political reforms. But recent University surveys back the February elections, seen by the government was the way out of the crisis.