Phetchaburi, Thailand: Thailand’s first poll re-runs passed peacefully on Sunday following a widely disrupted general election, as pro-government ‘Red Shirts’ stepped up rallies in support of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s battered administration.
The February 2 election failed to ease a four-month political crisis when protesters seeking to topple Yingluck’s government caused the closure of around 10 per cent of polling stations, many in opposition strongholds.
The Election Commission said results cannot be announced until polls have been held in all constituencies, setting a late-April deadline for their completion.
Yingluck can only remain prime minister in a caretaker role until then with limited power over policy, further eroding her authority as she handles ongoing street protests and a series of legal challenges against her administration.
Election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn said around 120,000 people were registered to vote on Sunday across more than 100 constituencies in five provinces.
He said the re-runs, the first attempted since February 2, had been held “peacefully... without any problems”.
But only a trickle of voters were seen at several polling stations in Phetchaburi, an opposition heartland around 160 kilometres south of Bangkok, according to an AFP reporter.
“I was disappointed that I had the right to vote on February 2 but couldn’t,” Sangwan Yuusuk, 57, said at a polling station.
Under election law, 95 per cent of the 500 seats in the lower house of parliament must be filled to enable the appointment of a new government.
On its website, the Election Commission said senators will be elected on March 30.
The main opposition Democrat party, which boycotted the general election, last month lost a legal bid to nullify the poll.
In addition to the protests, Yingluck faces a series of legal complaints against her government, including charges of negligence over a troubled rice subsidy scheme which could see her removed from office.
Pro-government Red Shirts have ramped up their rallies and rhetoric in support of Yingluck and her billionaire brother Thaksin — a former prime minister who lives in exile to avoid jail for a corruption conviction.
Television footage on Sunday showed thousands of people grouping in a car park in Khon Kaen — a Red Shirt stronghold in the country’s northeast — for an overnight rally, wearing the ubiquitous red and waving flags.
It follows a similar rally on Saturday in the northeast, which together with the rural north has returned Shinawatra-allied governments to power in every election for more than a decade.
They say their votes are a political reward for policies that have funnelled state money to their hard-scrabble regions after years of neglect.
Opponents describe the same policies as a form of vote-buying.
“We are ready to come in Bangkok if the situation is still a mess,” Red Shirt spokesman Thanavut Vichaidit told AFP, as he led a convoy of supporters to Khon Kaen.
Thailand has been riven by political divisions since 2006 when Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless military coup, sparking years of political turmoil punctuated by deadly street protests.
The worst violence left more than 90 people dead in the heart of Bangkok in 2010, in an army crackdown on Red Shirt rallies against the then-Democrat government.
Fears of widening civil conflict have surged amid gun and grenade attacks linked to the current rallies, which have killed 23 people — among them four children — and wounded several hundred others.
The violence prompted the head of the nation’s coup-prone army to warn that Thailand could slide into civil war.
Anti-government protesters on Sunday began dismantling rally stages at several key intersections in Bangkok after announcing the end of a weeks-long self-proclaimed “shutdown” of the city.
Protesters, whose numbers have dwindled in recent weeks, have moved their tents to Lumpini Park in the city centre.
The movement has denied the retreat marks a defeat, saying it would keep up its struggle to overthrow a government that it sees as corrupt.
Despite their pullback, analysts say Yingluck’s hold on power remains precarious, with anti-corruption authorities pressing charges over her role in the controversial rice scheme that could lead to her removal from office and a five-year ban from politics.
Some experts say that behind the scenes a power struggle is playing out to decide who will be in charge of the country when 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s more than six-decade reign eventually ends.