BANGKOK — Protesters seeking to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra disrupted voting for millions of people in Thailand’s general election Sunday in what appeared to be a prelude to a period of continued political paralysis in the country.
Opposition forces, who represent a minority in the country and are seeking to replace the country’s elected government with an appointed council of technocrats, say they will challenge the elections in the courts while continuing their street demonstrations in Bangkok.
Protesters on Sunday stopped the distribution of ballot boxes and pressed election officials to call off voting in a number of districts in Bangkok and in most of southern Thailand, the stronghold of the protest movement.
Thousands of polling places were forced to close, disenfranchising millions of registered voters, the Associated Press reported.
Although there was no violence reported during voting hours, a battle in Bangkok on Saturday between would-be voters and gunmen allied with the protesters left at least seven people wounded, and may have deterred many voters from participating.
One of those unable to vote Sunday was an election commissioner, Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, whose polling place in Bangkok was shut down because protesters blocked the delivery of ballot boxes.
Furious Bangkok residents who were blocked from voting filed complaints at police stations, while protesters nearby, many of them looking threatening with military-style clothing and covered faces, blocked access to roads near polling places.
“This is the dark ages!” said Wantanee Suthachiva, a businesswoman who was turned away at her polling place.
In a stark illustration of the divisions in Thailand, voting went smoothly in northern, northeastern, central, and eastern regions of Thailand. The disruptions were limited to Bangkok and the south.
But the disruptions by protesters — both Sunday and in the registration process leading up to the vote — will force a series of smaller elections before any government can be formed, a process that will most likely take months.
The leader of the protests, Suthep Thaugsuban, who urged Thais to boycott the elections on the grounds that they would return Yingluck to power, said Sunday was the day “when you choose your side.”
Among those who did not vote were television actors and actresses and middle- and upper-class Thais in Bangkok, who along with southerners form the core of the protesters. Rather than voting, protesters held what they called a “picnic” on the streets of central Bangkok that included live music and political speeches.
The protest movement includes many powerful Thais. But also significant Sunday was the list of high-profile Thais who voted, including the country’s most senior military commanders. The protesters have pleaded with the military to intervene in the power struggle and help them carry out their seemingly quixotic plan for an unelected “people’s council” that would replace parliament.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the powerful commander of the army, who has given ambiguous signals to both the governing party and the protesters in recent weeks, appeared eager to avoid waiting reporters and left his polling place so hastily that he forgot to retrieve his identity card. But his vote was taken by many as a signal that the military supports an electoral solution to the power struggle.
The army has carried out a dozen coups in modern Thai history. One military officer, who declined to be identified because of the delicacy of the matter and who was called in to keep peace in Bangkok on Sunday, said that the army itself was divided and that it feared a backlash by government supporters if it were to intervene. Another would-be arbiter in the crisis, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, is ailing and has been silent about the political standoff.
Thailand has had many interruptions to democratic rule since the absolute monarchy was abolished more than eight decades ago, including the coups. But the country’s electoral system — the organization of elections and the transparent counting of ballots — had until this general election been praised as a model for less developed neighboring countries.
Opposition parties have conceded defeat in all of the recent elections and there have been no challenges — until now — to the legitimacy of the process.
The Democrat Party and the protesters justify their opposition to the elections on the grounds that Yingluck and her elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon and former prime minister, are corrupt and disregard the rights of the political minority. But many independent observers see a naked grab for power by the opposition.
Thaksin, who was prime minister from 2001 until the military ousted him in 2006, has been widely accused of using his power to further his business interests. He was convicted of abuse of power in a politicized trial in 2008 and lives abroad in self-imposed exile. Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained lawyer and commentator, said there was no denying the governing party’s faults. The governing party “is surely a big part of the problem,” he said in an e-mail, “but to overthrow them and the rule of law altogether will only provide them with legitimate call for more support.”
Verapat said he believed that the opposition forces would call for the annulment of the elections on the grounds that they were not free and fair because of the many disruptions. He called this argument “absurd” because the opposition forces were responsible for the problems plaguing the elections.
A nullified general election, he said, “would lead to much more blood on the streets.”