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April 20, 2014

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Fear of violence grips Thai capital on eve of vote

Updated Friday, Jan. 31, 2014 | 11:37 p.m.

BANGKOK (AP) — On the streets of Thailand's tense capital, campaign posters bearing images of the country's prime minister have been ripped apart and punched through, defaced with a blunt message for the beleaguered government of Yingluck Shinawatra: "Get Out."

The vandals are not, however, challenging her party in nationwide elections Sunday. They are part of a protest movement fighting to overthrow her that is not only boycotting the poll but is actively trying to stop some from voting.

The result is a highly unusual ballot that has little to do with the traditional contests between rival candidates vying for office. Instead, polling day is shaping up as a confrontation between protesters who want to suspend the country's fragile democracy to institute anti-corruption reforms, and those who know the election will do little to solve the nation's crisis but insist that the right to vote cannot be taken away.

And many fear it could turn violent.

"How did we get to this point?" asked Chanida Pakdeebanchasak, a 28-year-old Bangkok resident who was determined to cast her ballot Sunday no matter what happens. "Since when does going to vote mean you don't love the country?"

The protesters, a minority that cannot win power at the polls, say the election will leave Yingluck's party in power and it will do nothing to tackle the nation's deep-seated problems of corruption and money politics. They are demanding the government replaced unelected council that would implement political and electoral reforms first.

Instead of campaign speeches and electrified rallies for candidates hoping to take office, Bangkok's muted capital has been gripped instead by a palpable sense of dread. There's widespread fear the vote will spawn fresh violence because demonstrators are likely to try to physically block voters from going to polling centers. Since the end of November, 10 people have died and nearly 600 have been injured in clashes between the two sides.

Sunday's election will almost certainly be inconclusive and therefore will do little to resolve Thailand's political crisis. There is little hope the new Parliament will have enough members to convene because protesters have obstructed candidates from registering in some districts, so not all constituencies are likely to be able to vote. That means Yingluck would be unable to form a government or even pass a budget, leaving Thailand in a political limbo for several months.

A power vacuum may entice the military to step in and declare a coup, as it did in 2006, when it overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, who lives in exile but remains a central — and polarizing — figure in Thailand's political strife ever since. The rural poor majority adore him for his populist policies, such as virtually free health care, while Bangkok's elite consider him and his family a corrupting influence on the country. Protesters say Yingluck is a puppet of her billionaire brother.

Another possibility is what is being called a "judicial coup." Analysts say the courts and the country's independent oversight agencies all tilt heavily against the Shinawatras' political machine, and Yingluck's opponents are already studying legal justifications to nullify Sunday's vote.

"I think probably we are moving toward a judicial coup of some sort," said Chris Baker, a Bangkok-based political analyst and writer. "I think we are moving toward a position in which some part of the judicial machinery, be it the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Constitutional Court, some combination of this, will somehow bring down this government."

The protests began in earnest late last year after the ruling party tried to push through an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return from exile.

Desperate to defuse the crisis, Yingluck dissolved the lower house of Parliament in December and called new elections. But protests only intensified, and Yingluck — now a caretaker prime minister with limited powers — has found herself increasingly cornered. Thai courts have begun fast-tracking cases that could see Yingluck or her party banished from power, and the army has pointedly left open the possibility of intervening again if the crisis is not resolved peacefully.

The run-up to the vote has been overshadowed by protesters who have occupied half a dozen major intersections in Bangkok, barricading roads and forcing government ministries to shut down or work from back-up offices.

Last week, demonstrators chained polling stations shut and stopped hundreds of thousands of people from casting advance ballots, sparking violence that left one protester dead. There is widespread fear Sunday will see new violence if demonstrators physically block voters from going to polling centers. Already, the Election Commission has canceled balloting in eight southern provinces — a stronghold of the protesters who surrounded post offices there to prevent electoral materials from being delivered.

Police are expected to deploy 100,000 officers nationwide, while the army is putting 5,000 soldiers in Bangkok to boost security. More than 47 million people are registered to vote.

"There's no point casting your ballot when the people who will get to Parliament are the same old crooks," said Wanida Srithongphan, a 43-year-old protesters from southern Thailand. "It's a waste of money."