CHIANG MAI —
Supporters of Thailand’s ruling party are eager to vote Sunday, to demonstrate how popular the prime minister remains despite the protests in Bangkok. In the major northern city of Chiang Mai, supporters say if the courts or military intervene to depose the government, they are prepared to fight back.
In Chiang Mai, a spike in tourist arrivals is a sure sign of foreigners seeking safer destinations in Thailand amid worries of trouble in Bangkok from anti-government protesters.
But the region's laid back image as a tranquil retreat could change, according to supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's party known as the Red Shirts.
Former police sergeant turned Chiang Mai Red Shirt leader Pichet Tanwon claims that a half-million armed supporters are prepared to go to battle to protect the prime minister if the military attempts a coup. They say they will defend her and her party from their northern stronghold.
“The Red Shirt people will fight," he said. "We will not let the coup happen to destroy our society and our country, and we have many strategies to fight, but now we cannot make public our plans how we are going to battle.”
Despite a failed rice-buying scheme that's left thousands of farmers without payment and the country deep in debt, support for the Pheu Thai remains strong in much of northern Thailand.
Just a few kilometers from Yingluck's Chiang Mai hometown, a gathering of politicians and Red Shirt supporters holds a candlelight demonstration at a district police station.
First time candidate Anog Jaichauy, whose Co-operative Power Party is one of many grass-roots contenders allied with the ruling party, said the Bangkok protesters who oppose the vote are being manipulated.
“The situation in Bangkok is chaos right now because the protest group is actually being used by the elitist to cause the problems in our country and against the democratic system," she said. "They abuse our right to vote.”
After months of protests accusing the government of corruption and its supporters of ignorance, passions are running high. As the peaceful evening ceremony winds up, tempers flare.
“I want Thailand to have the elections on February 2. I don't want Thailand to get confused. We should hold the election for democracy. Democracy comes from the people's votes,” said Sawat Yodkham, a farmer and Red Shirt supporter.
Thailand's elections Sunday are aimed at resolving the country's political deadlock, but the passions on display here indicate the divide will continue, despite the vote.