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June 24, 2017

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Foreboding in Bangkok on eve of vote

BANGKOK--On the streets of Thailand's tense capital, campaign posters bearing images of the country's prime minister have been ripped apart and punched through, defaced with a blunt message for the beleaguered government of Yingluck Shinawatra: "Get Out."

The vandals are not, however, challenging her party in nationwide elections Sunday. They are part of a protest movement fighting to overthrow her that is not only boycotting the poll but has actively tried to stop it from taking place.

The result is a highly unusual ballot that has little to do with the traditional contests between rival candidates vying for office.

Instead, polling day is shaping up as a battle of wills between protesters and the government. On the one side are demonstrators who say they want to suspend the country's fragile democracy to institute anti-corruption reforms, and on the other those who know the election will do little to solve the nation's crisis but insist the right to vote should not be taken away.

Gunshots and several explosions rang out in the north of the city on Saturday, as pro-government supporters and anti-government demonstrators hurled rocks at each other. At least one person was wounded in the clash in the Laksi district and taken away in an ambulance, according to an Associated Press team on the scene.

After a day of chaotic advance voting in Bangkok a week ago and three months of anti-government protests that have left 10 dead and nearly 600 wounded, many are bracing for more violence on Sunday.

"How did we get to this point?" asked Chanida Pakdeebanchasak, a 28-year-old Bangkok resident who was determined to cast her ballot Sunday no matter what happens. "Since when does going to vote mean you don't love the country?"

The protesters, a minority that cannot win power at the polls, are demanding the government be replaced by an unelected council that would implement political and electoral reforms to combat deep-seated problems of corruption and money politics. Yingluck has refused to step down, arguing she is open to reform and such a council would be unconstitutional.

Parliament Will Be Unable to Convene

The crisis has almost completely overshadowed campaigning. Instead of stump speeches and electrified rallies for candidates hoping to take office, Thailand's muted capital has been gripped instead by a palpable sense of dread and uncertainty over whether demonstrators will physically block voters from getting inside polling centers.

Although unrest could hit Bangkok and polling stations may not open in some parts of the south if ballot materials don't arrive in time, voting is expected to proceed smoothly in most of the country.

Police say they will deploy 100,000 officers nationwide, while the army is putting 5,000 soldiers in Bangkok to boost security

Whatever happens, the outcome of Sunday's election will almost certainly be inconclusive. Because protesters have already blocked candidate registration in some districts, Parliament will not have enough members to convene. That means Yingluck will be unable to form a government or even pass a budget, and Thailand will be stuck in political limbo for months as by-elections are run in constituencies that were unable to vote.

A power vacuum may entice the military to step in and declare a coup as it did in 2006, when Yingluck's elder brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was deposed.

Another possibility is what is being called a "judicial coup."

"I think probably we are moving toward a judicial coup of some sort," said Chris Baker, a Bangkok-based political analyst and writer. "I think we are moving toward a position in which some part of the judicial machinery, be it the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Constitutional Court, some combination of this, will somehow bring down this government."

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