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In Bangkok, voting demands nerves of steel

Voters will have to fight through demonstrators to get to the polls on Sunday. Here’s what drives Thailand's angry, anti-government mobs.

Thai protests locked polling stationEnlarge
Protesters linger outside a locked polling station gate. Advance voting for the February 2nd general elections was unable to continue because the protesters blocked the station on Jan. 26, 2014 in Bangkok. The anti-government protesters vowed to stop all elections from taking place in the capitol city. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

BANGKOK — In Thailand’s capital, voting can require not just a sense of civic duty, but also nerves of steel.

A self-proclaimed “people’s coup” movement — which has already invaded government ministries and vowed to abduct the premier — is now hell-bent on stopping an upcoming election by forcibly preventing voters from entering polling stations.

On Jan. 26, an advance voting day preceding the big Feb. 2 election, the movement gave Thailand a preview of its tactics.

Throngs of protesters successfully shut down almost all of Bangkok’s polling stations. In some districts, they shackled gates with steel chains. In others, they sprawled on the ground to form a sea of bodies, and dared would-be voters to step on their heads.

Many undeterred voters were physically restrained or jeered by noisy mobs.

This generated several unflattering scenes that ricocheted through social media: a would-be voter violently choked at one precinct; a middle-aged woman manhandled in another. There was also resistance: a protest captain was shot dead by unidentified gunmen while shutting down polls. The killing was captured by a camera phone.

“Of course, voters may feel afraid,” said Chaiya, a 36-year-old merchant and protester, who aided a throng of hundreds in forcing a polling station to shut its gates. “We don’t mean to hurt anybody. But they need to know nothing good will come of this election.”

Thailand’s politics have again taken a turn for the surreal. According to the uprising’s leaders and their faithful, they are killing off the coming election under the banner of “democracy.”

Their goal: toppling the elected government and filling the vacuum with a non-elected council of virtuous Thais who will purify the nation of corruption. They promise to restore elections in a year, perhaps longer.

“We’re not throwing away elections altogether,” said Akanat Prompan, the uprising’s chief spokesman. “We’re just saying that once reform is done, we can return to elections.”

The uprising’s leader, a former deputy premier named Suthep Thaugsuban, has “stated very clearly that he’d like to have everything done within a year,” Akanat said. “Whether that’s enough assurance or not, well, he’s stated that very clearly.”

Though the uprising calls itself the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, its insistence that election sabotage will uplift “democracy” has taken a beating in Thailand and around the world.

The poll blockades were admonished by the US State Department and Human Rights Watch among others. In a sign of the times, even neighboring Myanmar, a nation notorious for oppression and disorder, expressed concern over Thailand’s instability.

“Commotion and sporadic violence and intimidation around election day is not uncommon,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a senior political analyst with Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, told GlobalPost. “But the systematic prevention of voters exercising their rights is unprecedented.”

“I think we’re facing a voting showdown on Sunday,” Thitinan said. “But preventing people from [advance] voting was not so successful. ... There’s a risk they may feel more desperate and thereby choose a more radical path that could lead to violence from both sides.”

Democracy by other rules

It is a foregone conclusion that Thailand’s ruling party, Pheu Thai, will triumph at the polls — particularly since the opposition Democrat Party, whose stalwarts engineered the uprising, have abandoned the race. The Democrat Party has not won an election since the early 1990s. Pheu Thai, led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, belongs to a political network that has won every election for more than a decade.

Though the uprising lacks widespread support, it has allies in high places — including Thailand’s election commission, which seeks to push back the election.

Even a key official with Asia’s premier election-monitoring group, the Asian Network for Free Elections, is mocking the election. One of its top board members, Sakool Zuesongdham, told GlobalPost that Thais preparing to vote are misguided and praised police for refusing to break up poll blockades.

“Voters are quite naive about politics,” Sakool said. “They have to work hard every day and don’t have time to catch up with information. They only hear the government’s side.

“These protesters have high aspirations to change Thai politics,” he said. “If the prime minister still insists on this election that means she’s very stupid.”

As in English, the Thai word for democracy (“prachatipatai”) connotes a noble ideal that all sides embrace — including the uprising.

But the uprising’s vision