Thai protesters block voting in chaotic election

BANGKOK - Opposition protesters blocked voting at thousands of polling stations in Thailand on Sunday, triggering angry scenes in the capital over an election that plunged the strife-racked kingdom into political limbo.

Despite weeks of mass street demonstrations aimed at forcing her from office, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was widely expected to extend her billionaire family's decade-long winning streak at the ballot box.

But widespread disruption to voting meant that the results are not expected for weeks at least. And few believe the polls will end the political turmoil that has plagued the kingdom since her elder brother Thaksin was ousted as premier in a military coup in 2006.

Yingluck's opponents say she is a mere puppet for the ousted leader, a hugely controversial figure who lives in Dubai to avoid prison for a corruption conviction.

The main opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted the vote, said it was gathering legal evidence to seek an annulment of the election.

About 10,000 out of nearly 94,000 polling stations were unable to open, according to the Election Commission, affecting millions of people, although it was unclear how many had planned to vote.

An angry crowd gathered outside one voting centre in the Bangkok district of Din Daeng, holding their ID cards in the air and chanting "Vote! Vote!", before storming inside. They later filed complaints with police about the blockade.

"I came to vote, but they have denied my rights," said Praneet Tabtimtong, 57, clutching a large wooden club. "I am begging them to let me vote."

The disruption means that even if Yingluck wins she will remain in a caretaker role with limited power over government policy until elections are held in the troubled areas, because there will not be enough MPs to convene parliament.

"Normally even if one polling station is blocked we cannot announce the result," said Election Commission member Somchai Srisutthiyakorn.

"As long as there are protests and no negotiation, then parliament cannot open."

Experts say a protracted period of political uncertainty and possible street violence could set the scene for a military or judicial coup. The army chief has repeatedly refused to rule out seizing power, while Yingluck is under investigation by an anti-corruption panel.

At least 10 people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes, grenade attacks and drive-by shootings since the opposition rallies began, with victims on both sides.

Tensions were running high after a dramatic gun battle between rival protesters on the streets of the capital on the eve of the election that left at least seven people wounded, but there were no reports of serious violence on election day by the time polls closed.

'Thuggery and intimidation'

The demonstrators want Yingluck to step down and make way for an unelected "people's council" to oversee reforms to tackle corruption and alleged vote-buying.

In many parts of the south, a stronghold of the anti-government movement, protesters stopped post offices from distributing ballot sheets and boxes.

Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, accused the demonstrators of "thuggery and intimidation".

But in the government's heartland in north and northeast Thailand, as well as some areas of the capital, voting went ahead without major disruption in a boost to Yingluck's hopes of re-election.

"I did my duty today as I came to vote -- it's my right," said Pui, 43, who cast his ballot at a polling station in Bangkok's historic district where a handful of police watched over voters.

Authorities said roughly 130,000 police were deployed around the country for the vote, but with tens of thousands of polling stations, many had only a light security presence.

The backdrop to the unrest is a long-running political struggle pitting Thailand's royalist establishment -- backed by the courts and the military -- against Thaksin.

The protests were initially triggered by a failed amnesty bill that could have allowed the fugitive former premier to return without going to jail.

The recent violence is the worst political bloodshed in the kingdom since 2010 when protests by pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" left more than 90 dead and nearly 1,900 injured in clashes and a military crackdown.

The elite-backed opposition Democrat Party -- which has not won an elected majority in around two decades -- refused to take part in the vote, throwing its support behind the anti-government protests.

The party said Sunday that it was preparing to mount a legal challenge to the vote.

"We are compiling evidence and information to ask the court to nullify this election," said deputy leader Ongart Klampaiboon.

The protesters have vowed to keep up their fight to topple Yingluck, whatever the outcome of the polls.

"The winners will not represent the Thai people," rally leader Suthep Thaugsuban, an opposition heavyweight, told supporters Sunday. "The winners must be Thaksin slaves."