It is election day, and voting must go ahead

It is election day, and voting must go ahead

Set against a background of tumultuous political conflicts and held despite strong opposition from many parties including the Election Commission (EC) itself, the general election today will be mired in controversy and will likely yield more questions than answers to the ongoing political strife.

Still, the poll is being held as decreed by law and no matter how imperfect it has been, voters nationwide have a duty to cast their ballots.

These citizens should be allowed to exercise their democratic right freely, with a clear and calm state of mind and not under duress, or fear for their own safety.

The onus is on the caretaker government of Yingluck Shinawatra and anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by former Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban, to ensure voters have a safe passage to the poll.

The PDRC has made no secret of its intention to thwart the election. Mr Suthep's calling for a mass rally in parallel to the poll today is just another attempt to "shut down" the capital and make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to vote.

The PDRC may try to circumvent its deterioration into an anti-democracy mob by saying that it is only campaigning against the election and not blocking it.

Another excuse that the group has spun is its protesters are not against the election itself but only oppose it being held now, before their proposed reform of the country can take place.

The truth, however, is to the contrary. Clashes between protesters trying to stop people from getting to polling stations and voters who are keen to make their political choice during the advance voting on Jan 26 exposed how some members of the PDRC were simply bent on disruption.

The protesters' behaviour was not only undemocratic but also unlawful. Mr Suthep must not allow such acts of hooliganism to recur today.

The PDRC has every right to campaign for the reform of many sectors of the country, which it deems as too corrupt or too centralised to support a genuine democracy, with enough mechanisms to counter and keep in check the executive branch, which by its nature would tend to cater to the desire of people who vote it in, whether it is justified or not.

The PDRC is also allowed by the constitution to stage a demonstration to force the caretaker government to step down and create a political vacuum, as long as it does so in a peaceful fashion.

The group can continue its occupation of many public areas as long as it does not infringe on other people's properties and freedom. If it wants to, it can march around town and invite people to take up their cause and the protest, as it has done so many times in the past few months.

What the PDRC cannot do, however, is stop people from voting. It's a duty and a fundamental right for citizens in a democratic regime which no one is allowed to trample on.

At the end of advance voting day, the PDRC had succeeded in blocking voters in 89 constituencies, mostly in the South and Bangkok, out of 375 nationwide. More than 400,000 people were barred from exercising their right, accounting for about 22% of the total of two million who registered for advance voting.

Fortunately, these people will have another chance to vote as the EC scheduled a repeat advance vote on Feb 23. What is irrecoverable, however, is the life of a protest leader and veteran development worker Sutin Tharatin, who was shot dead during a clash between the demonstrators and pro-election red shirts in Bang Na on that day.

While Sutin's murderers must be condemned and authorities must work hard to bring them to justice, the protesters must also refrain from continuing the provocative act of physically blocking polling stations and barring people from voting.

The risk of confrontation is much higher today when 99,000 poll units throughout the country are open to accommodate millions of eligible voters. With the political conflicts and controversy over the election stoked to breaking point, even small acts of provocation by either side can catch fire and lead to disastrous results. All sides thus must work hard to prevent unnecessary clashes from happening.

The situation is already tense today because Mr Suthep had urged the public to forego the vote and join his mass rally instead. Mr Suthep owes it to his supporters and the general public to keep his rally in place and in peace. He must make sure no marauders are allowed to romp around and scare people off from carrying out their democratic duty.

The caretaker government and the Centre for the Maintenance of Peace and Order, which have insisted on holding the election as planned despite concerns expressed by several parties, are also duty-bound to do everything in their capacity to ensure that voters can cast their ballot and return home safely.

They must also make sure that despite its flawed start in which some people were barred from registering their candidacy and many from casting their votes in advance, the poll is run in a free and fair manner.

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