Thailand holds peaceful elections despite disruptions, but country's crisis far from over

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By TODD PITMAN, Associated Press

The Associated Press

Voters hold their identification cards and the chains that held the gate of the polling station closed, as they demand the right to vote during general elections in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014. Around the country, the vast majority of voting stations were open and polling proceeded relatively peacefully, but the risk of violence remained high a day after gun battles in Bangkok left seven people wounded. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand held nationwide elections without bloodshed Sunday despite widespread fears of violence. But the country's bitter political crisis is far from over, and one of the next flash points is likely to be an effort to nullify the vote.

Although balloting was largely peaceful, protesters forced thousands of polling booths to close in Bangkok and the south, disenfranchising millions of registered voters. Not all Parliament seats will be filled as a result, meaning the nation could stay mired in political limbo for months with the winning party unable to form a new government.

The struggle to hold the vote was part of a 3-month-old conflict that has split the country between supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and protesters who allege her government is too corrupt to rule.

The crisis, in which demonstrators have occupied major intersections across Bangkok and forced government ministries to shut down and work elsewhere, overshadowed the poll's run-up to such an extent that campaigning and stump speeches laying out party platforms were virtually non-existent.

Rather than "a contest among candidates, it was about whether the election itself could happen," said Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch. "That in itself says a lot about the fate of democracy in Thailand — it's hanging by a thread."

Television stations, which normally broadcast electoral results, were reduced to projecting graphics not of party victories and losses, but of which constituencies were open or closed.

Official results cannot be announced until a series of by-elections are held and all districts have voted. The first will take place Feb. 23.

In Bangkok, protesters surrounded government offices housing ballot papers, preventing them from being delivered. They also pressured electoral officials not to report for duty, and in some cases physically preventing people from voting.

Infuriated voters cut the chains off polling stations that had been locked, futilely demanding that they be allowed to cast ballots. In one downtown district, they hurled bottles at each other and one demonstrator fired a gunshot after several people tried to push past a blockade. After authorities called off voting there, angry crowds stormed into the district office.

"We want an election. We are Thais," said Narong Meephol, a 63-year-old Bangkok resident who was waving his voter identification card. "We are here to exercise our rights."

Ampai Pittajit, 65, a retired civil servant who helped block ballot boxes in Bangkok, said she did it "because I want reforms before an election."

"I understand those who are saying this is violating their rights," he said. "But what about our right to be heard?"

The Election Commission said poll closures affected about 18 percent of the country's 48 million registered voters, although many of them may not have cast ballots anyway following a boycott by the opposition Democrat party, which is calling for political and economic reform first.

The protesters want to suspend democracy and 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. Yingluck has refused to step down, arguing she is open to reform and such a council would be unconstitutional.

Yingluck called Sunday's vote after dissolving Parliament in December in a failed bid to defuse the crisis. Protests intensified, and Yingluck — now a caretaker premier with limited power — has found herself increasingly cornered. Courts have begun fast-tracking cases that could see her party removed from power, while the army has warned it could intervene if the crisis is not resolved peacefully.