Thailand went to the polls Sunday to choose a new government. But the snap election is unlikely to settle the increasingly violent political stalemate between the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) led by a former deputy prime minister, Suthep Thaugsuban.
Instead of uniting the country, the election is exposing the deep political and social divisions that have afflicted Thailand, particularly since the 2006 military coup that dislodged then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's elder brother. (Thaksin, a self-made billionaire, now lives overseas in exile.)
Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party won office after winning a landslide victory in 2011. The crushing victory was accomplished on the backs of rural and working-class voters drawn to the party’s largely successful populist policies of the past. The resurgence of the Shinawatra political machine has incensed the opposition — an elite mix of establishment politicians, aristocrats and old-guard tycoons — which claims that Pheu Thai is the latest in a series of proxy parties actually run by Thaksin and which rely on a rigged system to stay in power.
With little possibility of winning at the polls, Suthep and PDRC have eschewed elections and instead promoted a radical agenda of boycotting the ballot box in favor of a “people’s council” that would oversee reforms to purge corruption before any elections take place. Suthep’s strategy has rallied Bangkok's upper and middle classes, who feel their traditional control of the country is slipping. But the obstruction of the democratic process has angered the many rural and working-class voters who support Pheu Thai and the electoral process as whole.
The bitter divide boiled over into violent confrontation on Saturday in Bangkok’s Lak Si district, where pro-government supporters confronted PDRC partisans who were blocking the delivery of ballots to a polling station in the area. The altercation eventually escalated into the two sides exchanging gunfire. At least seven people were injured. “Yesterday’s incident at Lak si was very chaotic,” Suthep, 64, told TIME on Sunday. The PDRC leader said that a masked gunman who fired into the crowd — his photo went viral Saturday — was not connected to the PDRC. While Suthep conceded two other individuals who discharged pistols during the melee were PDRC protesters, he insisted they acted in self-defense. “It is not our policy to have people come armed to protests and use violent means or non-peaceful means,” said Suthep. “We will be firmer in our instructions to the protesters.”
Several reporters were caught in the crossfire, including renowned war photographer James Nachtwey whose leg was grazed by a bullet during the melee. The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand condemned the light green armbands sported by the gunmen, which closely resembles markings worn by journalists in the country. “The FCCT believes that this use makes it even more dangerous for journalists working legitimately in Thailand in what is already a risky situation,” wrote the club in a statement published online.
Violence has been escalating for weeks. The current protests, which have been going on for three months, were sparked by Yingluck's government tabling of a now-shelved Amnesty Bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return. Both sides have set off grenades and discharged firearms. So far about 10 people have been killed and hundreds injured.
During a round of pre-voting last Sunday, potential voters were harassed and, in some cases attacked, as anti-government demonstrators ringed polling stations in the capital and in cities across the country’s south to try to derail the election. Later in the week, post offices were besieged in southern provinces to prevent the delivery of ballots.
On Sunday, voters were able to cast their ballots in 333 of the country's 375 constituencies. “I want peace back in Thailand and this is a democratic means to bring peace back,” says 56 year-old Witoon Vitoon, who is originally from the country’s northeast but now works as a courier and motorbike taxi driver in Bangkok. “Thailand is not an absolute monarchy anymore; it’s a democracy so we should all vote.”
But many still encountered difficulty. In Bangkok’s Din Daeng district, voters engaged in a standoff with anti-government supporters trying to stop them casting their ballots. “The unprecedented and most shocking thing is that there is blatant obstruction of voting," says Human Rights Watch senior researcher Sunai Phasuk. "This has never happened before in Thailand, especially the obstruction of voting by a political movement that claims to be striving for greater reform and democracy for the empowerment and betterment of the people.” Even if Pheu Thai wins the election, the opposition has already claimed voting irregularities and threatened to challenge the result in court.
PDRC's supporters say the election is meaningless anyway. “I choose to support reforms before elections that’s why I’m here today,” says 57-year-old Bangkok resident Somphob Pienpitak. “Reforms are necessary before elections.” That sentiment is echoed by Nok, a 43-year-old PDRC supporter who gave only her nickname for fear of being punished by her employer, a state enterprise: "I just want to get rid of Yingluck." Nok adds: “I’m not scared; I’m not afraid of being killed.”
The fervor is just as strong on the other side. “We are so divided and people are ready to lose their lives for their beliefs,” says May, a 30-year-old Bangkok resident who will only give her first name and who supports the government. “Some days, I think [civil war] is quite possible.”