Thai protesters try to disrupt election process
Riot police officers, right, try in vain to stop anti-government protesters from storming in to an office building during a rally at the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (AP / Wason Wanichakorn)
Jocelyn Gecker and Jinda Wedel, The Associated Press
Published Monday, December 23, 2013 6:23AM EST
Last Updated Monday, December 23, 2013 10:48AM EST
BANGKOK -- Anti-government protesters determined to unseat Thailand's prime minister surrounded a Bangkok sports stadium on Monday in an unsuccessful attempt to block political parties from registering for February elections.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is popular among the rural majority but disliked by the urban middle class and elite, called the Feb. 2 elections to defuse tension after several weeks of sometimes violent demonstrations in the Thai capital.
The attempted blockade comes after the main opposition Democrat Party said over the weekend it will boycott the vote, which Yingluck's ruling party would likely win.
Officials from her party and eight others managed to sign up for the election by slipping into the stadium in the middle of the night, despite the presence of some protesters who had camped out overnight, the state Election Commission said.
"We were aware that protesters would be blocking all entrances, so we went into the stadium at 4 a.m. while they were sleeping," said Prompong Nopparit, spokesman of the ruling Pheu Thai party. "Despite all this, the elections will continue as planned on Feb. 2."
With registration continuing for two weeks, the protesters have vowed to continue their blockade.
Bluesky Channel, a web and satellite television station that serves as the voice of the protest movement, showed a protest leader asking followers to guard all the gates to the stadium Monday night as well because representatives of the ruling party had managed to "sneak in" the night before.
More than two dozen other parties were able to begin the registration process at a nearby police station, where they filed complaints saying they were unable to access the main venue because of the blockade, the commission said.
Hundreds of protesters tried to seal off the police station, too, and then tried to block representatives of several political parties from leaving.
The mostly city-dwelling demonstrators say Yingluck's removal is necessary to purge the country of corruption and money politics. They view Yingluck as a puppet of her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and is living in self-imposed exile overseas after being convicted of corruption.
The protesters want an appointed interim government to oversee political and electoral reforms before any new polls are held.
But the Shinawatras have the support of Thailand's upwardly mobile rural poor, largely because of Thaksin's policies of bringing virtually free health care, cheap loans and other benefits to the long-neglected countryside. Yingluck has spent the past several days in Thailand's north and northeast, her party's political strongholds, surrounded by crowds of enthusiastic supporters.
Her government says the opposition's boycott shows it's afraid of losing. Thaksin and his allies have won every national election since 2001.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has mobilized huge crowds in Bangkok in the past few weeks, including more than 100,000 people on Sunday in a march that blocked traffic and shut down major intersections around the capital.
In a fiery speech Sunday night, he promised to continue mass rallies and blockades until they achieve their goal.
"Because Yingluck clings to her prime minister's seat, we must come out to chase her," Suthep told supporters. "We will keep chasing her until she is dead or until she leaves."
He declared that if the election still goes ahead on Feb. 2, "We will shut down the entire country and no one will vote."
Yingluck insists the polls will take place. Her party signaled its confidence in a victory by placing her at the top of its party list Monday, indicating she remains their choice for prime minister after elections.
Jousting between the two sides also took place Monday in the lobby of the Department of Special Investigation, similar to America's FBI, which was occupied by protesters for the second time in several weeks. The move was an apparent response to a DSI order freezing the assets of protest leaders and exploring criminal charges against them.