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Thai protesters disrupt early voting

Thai anti-government protesters surrounded almost half of the polling stations in Bangkok.

Thai anti-government protesters march towards polling stations to block their accesses in Bangkok on 26 January 2014. Picture: AFP

BANGKOK - Thai anti-government protesters surrounded almost half of the polling stations in Bangkok on Sunday, election officials said, chaining doors shut and forcing the cancellation of advance voting in many centres for a disputed election next week.

Embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called the 2 February election in the hope of cementing her hold on power in the face of more than two months of protests trying to force her from office.

The success of Sunday's advance voting could determine whether the election proceeds as scheduled, even after Yingluck's government warned anyone who tried to stop voting would face jail or fines, or both.

"Around 20 polling booths out of 50 in Bangkok can't hold advanced voting because protesters have surrounded the booths and moved to close them," Veera Yeephraew, a senior election official in Bangkok, told Reuters.

It was already unclear whether the election would go ahead after a Constitutional Court added to the pressure on Yingluck on Friday with a ruling that opened the possibility of a delay.

The government declared a state of emergency that took effect from Wednesday as it sought to rein in protests that began in November. While mainly peaceful, nine people have been killed and scores wounded in sporadic violence.

The protests are the latest eruption in a political conflict that has gripped Thailand for eight years and which is starting to hurt growth and investor confidence in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.

The conflict broadly pits Bangkok's middle class and elite, and followers in the south, against mainly poor rural backers of Yingluck and her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, in the populous north and northeast.

The protesters, led by firebrand former deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban, accuse Yingluck of being the puppet of her brother, who lives in self-imposed exile after a 2008 graft conviction he says was politically motivated.

They say Thaksin's powerful political machine has subverted Thailand's fragile democracy by effectively buying the support of rural voters with populist policies such as cheap healthcare and subsidies for rice farmers.

POTENTIAL VIOLENCE

The Election Commission has also called for a delay, saying Thailand is too unsettled for a vote to proceed. The protesters want an unelected "people's council" installed to oversee a period of reform before any future vote is held.

Protesters waving Thai flags and blowing whistles blocked the gates of several polling stations on Sunday, while others parked six-wheel trucks outside polling booths to block access.

Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in northern Chiang Mai, said the disruption of advance polling would add impetus to the calls for an election delay.

"The ability of those against advance voting to keep it from happening today could signal what may come next week - a decision to delay the vote due to an inability to hold the election properly," Chambers said.

He said delaying the vote would at least defuse tensions temporarily. "It clearly can't take place, for the most part in Bangkok and the south, and there could be a lot of costs, including violence and waste of tax payers' money," he said.

Yingluck is set to meet Election Commission officials on Tuesday to discuss whether to delay the election, which she would be expected to win easily. The main opposition Democrat Party has said it will boycott the election.

There were also disruptions at polling stations outside the capital early on Sunday, with several booths closed in the south. Election officials were stopped from entering polling stations in some places.

About 49 million out of Thailand's population of 66 million are eligible to vote in the election, with some 2.16 million registered for advance polling.

Yingluck's government had been proceeding relatively smoothly until her Puea Thai Party miscalculated in November and tried to force through an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother to return a free man.

Thaksin, a billionaire former telecoms tycoon, was ousted by the military in 2006 amid charges of corruption and disrespect for Thailand's country's revered monarchy.