By THANYARAT DOKSONE and TODD PITMAN, AP
BANGKOK — Anti-government demonstrators trying to derail a contentious general election scheduled next week in Thailand surrounded polling stations and chained them shut, blocking hundreds of thousands of people from casting advance ballots Sunday in the latest blow to the country’s increasingly embattled government.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had called the Feb. 2 vote in a failed bid to ease months of street protests that have thrown the nation into crisis. But the poll chaos looked set to deepen the nation’s political deadlock.
Although disruptions were expected at electoral venues in Bangkok and in the opposition stronghold in southern Thailand, voting Sunday was likely to go ahead unhindered in the majority of the country. About 49 million of the nation’s 64 million people are eligible to cast ballots, and 2.16 million applied for advance voting.
The outcome of Sunday’s balloting is seen as a harbinger for the main poll, which both the Election Commission and demonstrators want postponed. Ruling party officials suggested over the weekend that they were willing to delay the ballot — but only if protests end and the main opposition party abandons its boycott. There has been no sign yet that Yingluck’s rivals would agree to any deal, however.
In Bangkok on Sunday, swarms of protesters waving the Thai flag blocked electoral officials, ballot boxes and voters from getting inside voting stations, and electoral officials closed 34 of them as a result. In the south, 11 stations were also forced to shut, bringing the total number closed to 45 out of 152 nationwide, electoral officials said.
Police took no action to disperse the crowds, following longstanding orders to avert violence for fear of triggering a military coup that could depose Yingluck’s government.
Suthida Sungkhapunthu, a 28-year-old office worker, turned back from one polling station after reading news of the day’s mayhem on her phone.
“I saw this coming but I’m still quite disappointed,” she said, denouncing the protesters as “undemocratic” as she watched the mob at her polling station a block away. “It’s my constitutional right” to vote.