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Friday, January 31, 2014

Protesters Try To Block Thai Elections

Thai anti-government protesters hold protest placards during a rally in Bangkok on January 31, 2014.  Tens of thousands of police will be deployed across Thailand for an election seen as a crucial test of the kingdom's fragile democracy, with opposition protesters threatening to lay siege to polling stations. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images)

Thai anti-government protesters hold protest placards during a rally in Bangkok on January 31, 2014. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s supposed to be an election in Thailand on Sunday, but today, demonstrators blockaded buildings where the ballots are stored.

Anti-government protesters have been out in the streets for three months, calling for the elections to be delayed. They believe the ruling party and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will easily be re-elected.

The protesters want the government replaced by an unelected “people’s council” they hope would reform Thailand’s political system.

The BBC’s Jonathan Head joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson from Bangkok to discuss the situation in Thailand, which he calls “very tense.”




Well, now to Thailand, where polling stations are being set up for Sunday's elections, but there are fears that the political tension that's been boiling in Thailand for months could spark violence as the votes are being cast. Anti-government protestors have been trying to blockade the offices where the ballots are being kept, and they plan to boycott the election if it goes ahead as scheduled.

The BBC's Jonathan Head joins us from Bangkok with the latest. Jonathan, welcome back.

JONATHAN HEAD: Jeremy, nice to be with you.

HOBSON: Well, how would you describe the way people are feeling, heading into this Sunday's elections? Because it's certainly been a long road to get here.

HEAD: Yeah, and it's very fraught, Jeremy. I mean, the country is pretty divided. We've got this protest movement here in Bangkok. It's been occupying large parts of the center of the city over the last, well, almost three months now. They are absolutely dead-set against this election. They're very nervous of the governing party, which they say is an authoritarian party that abuses its power, winning yet another mandate.

So all of their people are out there saying no election, they don't want people to go out and vote. They're trying to dissuade them. And on the other side, the government is calling on its supporters for a good show of support. Remember, the main opposition party is boycotting this election, and there have been so many problems with, in some places, candidates unable to be registered, that everyone expects we won't get an immediate result. There will have to be a lot of reruns in certain places.

And so the turnout's going to matter at lot. The government wants a good turnout. It thinks that'll give it a good mandate. Its opponents - this protest movement here and the main opposition party - are hoping the election will be disrupted. Now, a week ago, when they had advanced voting - they allow that here in Thailand - we saw the protestors actually physically trying to stop people to go and vote, and blocking them.

HOBSON: Right.

HEAD: And that looked really bad. I mean, a lot of people said it was very undemocratic behavior. They're saying they won't do that this time, but they are trying to obstruct the election other ways, like blocking offices that have ballot papers. So it's pretty tense here, just before the election.

HOBSON: Well, and I know there are concerns that there may be some violence, perhaps, from the opposition. Your colleague, John Sudworth, spoke with a local election official there. Let's listen to that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

JOHN SUDWORTH: Right now, the soldiers and the police have prepared their strategies, this election official tells me. The main thing is to make sure those coming to the polls don't bring weapons.

HOBSON: Now, Jonathan, at least 10 people have been killed in the violence surrounding the protests since they started last year. Do people think that the protestors could get violent?

HEAD: Well, the violence has come from both sides. There are a lot of guns here in Thailand, and there are hardliners who see this as an elemental battle, basically, between their side and the other. And the question is whether they will be allowed to come out or not. There are worrying signs that they may.

I mean, in one incident, when we had this advanced voting a week ago, a group of men came up and attacked a protest leader in broad daylight, firing multiple shots at him and killing him. On the other hand, there is a realization, I think, certainly on the protest side, that they don't want any more bad publicity after those scenes of voters being manhandled. And they are calling on the followers to be restrained when they demonstrate outside the polling stations.

I think the worry is possibly, not - there will inevitably possibly be some violence, because it's such a tense situation. They're so divided about this election. But also, what happens afterwards? The result will be inconclusive. We simply don't know when they'll have enough MPs elected to form a new parliament and form a new government. And that's going to leave this sort of stalemate we've had for weeks now in Thailand dangerously prolonged.

HOBSON: Now, I ask you this every time we speak, but it seems that every time we speak, the tensions are ratcheted up even further. But how is this disrupting life in Bangkok and all the tourists that are there from all over the world?

HEAD: It hasn't really affected them yet. I mean, here in the city center - because there's a sort of state of emergency, it's not a very serious one - but you do have these blocked-off roads with these protest rallies, some of which have been attacked. The hotels in the city center have seen occupancy drop catastrophically. The shopping malls are seeing very little business.

Elsewhere, not very drastic drops in tourist numbers, although it is Chinese New Year, and Thailand gets a huge number of Chinese tourists, normally. Those numbers have come down. The Chinese government's been warning its own people about coming here. The long-term effects could be a lot worse if this carries on, because, of course, the kind of holiday-makers who come particularly from Europe or the States, these are long-term plans. They'll be booking now. They'll be writing Thailand off their list of the go-able(ph) alternatives.

It's not just tourism. The bigger worry, ultimately, is the investment that powers this economy. And we've had a number of warnings already - in particular from the Japanese, who are big investors - about rethinking their big - we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investment, billions in some cases, that they're planning over the next few years. They might rethink that.

HOBSON: Well, you mentioned the economy. We spoke with an economist earlier this week who is pointing to Thailand - and other emerging markets, to be fair - but to Thailand as one of the problems that Wall Street is having right now. Jonathan, if this thing goes ahead on Sunday and everything works out as well as it can, do you see a light at the end of the tunnel, here? Can we get back to normal life in Thailand, whatever that might be?

HEAD: No, I'm afraid we can't, and there is no good result that comes out of this election. It's so messy. There are so many places, particularly in the south, where they're very loyal to the protest movement, where elections will be incredibly difficult. It's hard to imagine them taking place at all. There will have to be reruns in so many constituencies, so the whole election process is going to be prolonged. It's very likely, because it's so messy, that the courts will intervene.

But because they at the top courts, the Constitutional Court - it's a bit like the U.S. Supreme Court - have such a track record of judgments that are unfavorable to the government, that if they rule against the election, and it is quite likely, the government's own supporters will see that as unfair. They'll call it a judicial coup, and they will get angry. And we're likely to see even possible armed insurrection of some kind by the government's own supporters.

They even talked about declaring a government in exile, not recognizing any government in Bangkok that doesn't come out of this election. What Thailand needs is a massive process of national reconciliation and dialogue between these now two diametrically opposed sides: the passionate supporters of the government, and those who loathe the governing party and the family of the Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

There's no dialogue between them at all at the moment. I've spoken to the business community here, big businesses, and they've said we've tried. They're not even listening to us. So it tells you just how polarized this country is.

HOBSON: The BBC's Jonathan Head, joining us from Bangkok, Thailand, ahead of Sunday's elections there. Jonathan, thanks so much.

HEAD: Nice to talk to you, Jeremy.


And this quick note on another country that fell into convulsions after more than a week of negotiations. Syria peace talks adjourned in Geneva today with no breakthroughs, but perhaps some common ground between the government and its opponents. We'll have that and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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