Thailand's tense national election got underway yesterday with protesters forcing the closure of several polling stations in the capital amid fears of more bloodshed a day after gun battles in Bangkok left seven people wounded.
The extent of disruptions was not immediately clear when polls opened nationwide. But there were early indications that several hundred polling stations in Bangkok and southern Thailand, an opposition stronghold, could not open because protesters had blocked the delivery of ballots or stopped voters from entering.
Whatever happens, the outcome will almost certainly be inconclusive.
Because protesters blocked candidate registration in some districts, Parliament will not have enough members to convene.
That means beleaguered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will be unable to form a Government or even pass a Budget, and Thailand will be stuck in political limbo for months as byelections are run in constituencies that were unable to vote.
Roughly 49 million Thais were eligible to vote in the snap election, which saw 53 parties compete at more than 93,300 polling booths in 375 constituencies across the country.
At least 95 per cent of the Parliament - or 475 out of the 500 total seats - must be filled for a new Government to be approved and a Prime Minister named. If there are any fewer than that, a caretaker Government with limited powers will assume office.
As 28 constituencies in southern Thailand will return zero representatives (candidates were blocked from registering last month by protesters), byelections will be needed.
And with 10,000 polling booths set to be closed because of the protests, there is a chance the election will be declared null and void, or for further violence to prevent voting.
The risk of election-day violence remained high last night a day after seven people were wounded during an hour-long gunfight that broke out in broad daylight at a busy Bangkok intersection between government supporters and protesters intent on derailing the polls.
Among the injured was a reporter for the local Daily News newspaper and an American photojournalist, James Nachtwey, grazed by a bullet in the leg.
The exchange of fire was the latest flare-up in a months-long campaign by protesters to overthrow Yingluck's Government, which they accuse of corruption. The violence crystallised the power struggle that has devolved into a battle of wills between the Government and protesters and those caught between who want to vote.
Under heavy police security, Yingluck cast her vote at a polling station in northeastern Bangkok, cheered on by supporters. Voting was not as easy in other parts of Bangkok, where protesters vowed to fill the streets to stop voters from reaching polling stations.
At one of the more volatile districts of central Bangkok, a group of would-be voters in Din Daeng tried and failed to push through a crowd of protesters.
"This is too much. I want to vote," said 42-year-old Yupin Pintong. "I don't care if there's violence. I will be really upset if I don't get to vote."
The conflict pits demonstrators who say they want to suspend the country's fragile democracy to institute anti-corruption reforms against Yingluck's supporters who know the election will not solve the nation's crisis but insist the right to vote should remain.
The protesters, a minority that cannot win power at the polls, want the Government be replaced by an unelected council that would rewrite political and electoral laws to combat deep-seated problems of corruption and money politics. Yingluck has refused to step down, arguing she is open to reform and that such a council would be unconstitutional.
Since protests began late last year, at least 10 people have been killed and nearly 600 wounded.
The political standoff in the streets meant campaigning, at least in the capital, was done without the usual billboards, posters and sound trucks, with the pre-election buzz focused on violence instead of policies.
Voting was expected to proceed smoothly in most of the country.
- additional reporting AP