BANGKOK (AP) — Anti-government demonstrators in Thailand swarmed polling stations in the capital Sunday and chained their doors shut to block voters from getting inside, reneging on a pledge not obstruct advance voting for a contentious general election scheduled next week.
The chaos was the latest blow to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's embattled government, which called the Feb. 2 vote in a failed bid to ease months of street protests against her rule that have thrown the nation into crisis.
Although disruptions are 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 Thailand'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 protesters demanding Yingluck's ouster want postponed.
Ruling party officials suggested over the weekend that they were willing to delay the poll — 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, although Yingluck and the Election Commission are expected to meet Tuesday to discuss the possibility of putting the ballot off.
In Bangkok on Sunday, protesters waving the Thai flag blocked electoral officials and ballot boxes from getting inside voting stations, and electoral officials closed 18 of them in Bangkok and 11 in the south as a result, electoral officials said. There are 50 stations in Bangkok, and 152 nationwide.
Police took no action to disperse the crowds, following longstanding orders from Yingluck to avert violence for fear of triggering a military coup that could depose her 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.
The protest movement, known as the People's Democratic Reform Committee, said on its Facebook page that it was not obstructing the poll. The group reiterated comments late Saturday by its leader, former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, that "supporters are simply protesting the advance polls held today by surrounding/standing in front of election units."
The protesters are pushing for Yingluck's government to be replaced by a non-elected 'people's council' that would implement anti-corruption reforms before a new vote can take place. They accuse Yingluck's government of carrying on the practices of her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister they allege used the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and subvert democracy.
Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 after street protests accusing him of corruption and abuse of power. The coup triggered a sometimes-violent and still active struggle for power between Thaksin's supporters and opponents. He fled into exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest.
Yingluck has faced months of street protests, which intensified this month with demonstrators taking over key intersections and trying to shut down government offices to prevent civil servants from working.
Even if the Feb. 2 vote goes ahead, the crisis will continue. Protesters blocked registration in some districts last month, and not all legislative seats will be filled. Parliament is therefore unlikely to achieve the quorum it needs to convene, which would prevent a new government from being formed.
On Friday, the Constitutional Court ruled that the government, in agreement with the Election Commission, could postpone the polls. But Yingluck's Pheu Thai party questioned the legal basis for the ruling.
The government this week imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas after a spate of protest-related violence. The measure allows suspension of many civil liberties.
Yingluck's Pheu Thai party won the last general vote in a 2011 landslide.