According to The Associated Press, Thailand braced for tense nationwide elections Sunday (February 2), a day after gun battles broke out at a busy Bangkok intersection between government supporters and protesters trying to derail the polls by blocking the delivery of ballots to voting stations.
Several masked gunmen wearing armored vests bent down under a highway overpass as one of them fired a weapon concealed in a green sack. At least seven people were wounded in Saturday's (February 1) clashes, including a US photojournalist who was grazed by a bullet in the leg.
The exchange of fire was the latest evidence of a months-long campaign by protesters to overthrow the vulnerable government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, 46, which they accuse of corruption.
Protesters say they plan to fill the streets in Bangkok and prevent voters from reaching polling stations, pitting demonstrators who say they want to suspend the country's fragile democracy to institute anti-corruption reforms against Yingluck's supporters and would-be voters who know fully that the election will do little to solve the nation's political crisis.
The protesters, a minority that cannot win power at the polls, are demanding 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 all the while emphasizing that an unelected council would be unconstitutional.
COMMENT: Since protests began late last year, when Yingluck attempted to push through an amnesty bill designed to exonerate her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, 64, at least 10 people have been killed and nearly 600 wounded.
Although unrest has already hit Bangkok and polling stations may not open in some parts of the south if ballot materials don't arrive in time.
Police said they will deploy 100,000 officers nationwide, while the army is assigning 5,000 soldiers of the Thai Army into Bangkok to augment security. More than 47 million people are poised to vote.
Unfortunately for the country, the outcome of the election is likely to be inconclusive, particularly of a small percentage of voters will not have the opportunity to cast their votes. Moreover, protesters have already blocked candidate registration in some districts and Parliament will not have enough members to formally convene.
A real possibility, though, is that a power vacuum will evolve with the military stepping in, as it did in 2006, when Yingluck's brother, former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, was deposed. Considering that the military deposed Thaksin previously, they might well do the same again.
The rural majority in the north adore him for his populist policies, such as virtually free health care, while Bangkok's elite and many in the south consider him and his family a corrupting influence on the country.
Another possibility is what is being called a "judicial coup." Analysts say the courts and the country's independent oversight agencies all tilt heavily against the Shinawatras; Yingluck's opponents are already studying legal justifications to nullify Sunday's vote.
AP journalists saw a gunman allied with protesters firing an assault rifle while another fired a pistol as he lay on his stomach on the road.
If the Sunday election is nullified because all voters are not able to cast their vote, the protesters, which potentially number 200,000-300,000, have the physical clout to neutralize the government.
At a minimum, the protesters may well convince the media worldwide that Thailand, southeast Asia's second largest economy, is severely unstable, which could cause regional stock markets to quickly collapse.
Those in Thailand at the moment, if they have not already done so, should stock up with water and non-perishable food to weather the unpredictable political storm.
Those Thais and foreigners capable of doing so should leave the country temporarily until the "dust settles."