Protester killed in bid to block Thai voting

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BANGKOK -- Anti-government demonstrators swarmed dozens of polling stations Sunday to stop advance voting for next week's general elections in Thailand, chaining gates shut, threatening voters and preventing hundreds of thousands of people from casting ballots.

A protest faction leader was fatally shot in a confrontation near a voting center that also left 11 people wounded, Bangkok's emergency services said, and isolated street brawls broke out in several parts of the capital.

The chaos underscored the precariousness of Thailand's fragile democracy, and the increasing weakness of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's elected administration. Ms. Yingluck had called the Feb. 2 vote in a failed bid to ease months of street protests, but police did not disperse the crowds because of long-standing orders to avert violence, which many fear would give the all-powerful army reason to conduct a coup.

"It's a sad day for democracy when the right to vote ... is assaulted by a political movement that claims to be striving for reform and people's empowerment," Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said of the protesters.

Mr. Sunai, who was also unable to vote, said demonstrators forcefully intimidated would-be voters, and in at least one case attempted to strangle a man. Demonstrators were also targeted -- gunmen opened fire on a group attempting to block polling near a temple, killing faction leader Sutin Tharatin while he was giving a speech on the back of a truck.

Although most polling stations in Bangkok and many in the opposition stronghold in the south were forced to close, voting proceeded largely unhindered in the rest of the country. Still, the upheaval proved that demonstrators struggling to overthrow Ms. Yingluck have the ability to disrupt the main vote next week, and the country's electoral commission is unlikely to stand in their way.

The commission, which agrees with protesters that the elections should be delayed, is legally mandated to ensure that registered voters are able to cast ballots safely. But on Sunday, its members "just sat down and watched this thing collapse around them," Mr. Sunai said.

The protesters, a minority that cannot win power at the polls, are demanding that Thailand's democracy be put on hold. They want Ms. Yingluck's government replaced by a non-elected "people's council" that would implement anti-corruption overhauls before elections. They accuse her of corruption and allege the ruling party has employed its electoral majority to subvert democracy.

Much of their hatred is directed at Ms. Yingluck's family. They say she is a puppet of her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra, an exiled former premier who they allege used the family fortune and state funds to influence voters. Mr. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup that provoked a struggle that in broad terms pits Thailand's rural north against an urban elite backed by royalists and the south.


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