Bangkok - A man identified by police as one of the leaders of anti-government protests in Thailand was shot dead on Sunday when violence erupted as demonstrators in Bangkok blocked early voting in many areas for an election next week.
Piya Utayo, a spokesman for Thailand's national police, identified the dead man as Suthin Taratin, one of the protest leaders. “At least five other people were injured,” he said.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called the February 2 election in an attempt to defuse protests that have dragged on since November and which have sometimes flared into violence. At least 10 people have been killed and scores wounded.
A senior government official said earlier on Sunday that as many as 45 of the 50 polling stations in Bangkok had been shut as protesters swarmed the centres in what shaped as another blow for the embattled Yingluck. Early voting was also disrupted in 10 of Thailand's 76 provinces.
Bangkok police said clashes had broken out between anti-government protesters and Yingluck supporters, with the two sides trading punches before shots were fired. Hospital officials said 11 people were hurt in the clashes in Bangkok's Bang Na district.
It was not immediately clear who had fired the shots but the protesters accused the government and police of trying to intimidate them.
“Suthin was shot in the head ... The government has allowed thugs to use weapons,” Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for the protesters, told reporters.
Sunday's violence, the worst in a month, came after a state of emergency came into effect on Wednesday and casts further doubt over the election.
The protests are the latest eruption in a political conflict that has gripped Thailand for eight years and which is starting to hurt growth and investor confidence in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.
The conflict broadly pits Bangkok's middle class and elite, and followers in the south, against mainly poor rural backers of Yingluck and her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, in the populous north and northeast.
The protesters, led by firebrand former premier Suthep Thaugsuban, accuse Yingluck of being Thaksin's puppet and want an unelected 'people's council” to oversee reform before any future election is held.
On Saturday, a government minister said Yingluck was prepared to discuss cancelling the February 2 election if the activists ended their protests.
Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, also a deputy prime minister, said in a televised address the blocking of advance voting was “a serious offence” and said protesters had used force to stop people voting.
Yingluck's government had already warned anyone who tried to stop voting would be jailed or fined.
City officials said they had begun negotiating with the protesters. “We have to negotiate with them and let them know that blocking the election is illegal,” said Luckana Rojjanawong, a Bangkok district official said.
It was already unclear whether the election would go ahead after a Constitutional Court ruling on Friday that opened the possibility of a delay. The Election Commission has also called for a delay, saying Thailand is too unsettled.
The government declared the 60-day state of emergency to try to curtail protests after the demonstrators vowed to shut down Bangkok on January 13.
The protesters say Thaksin's powerful political machine has subverted Thailand's fragile democracy by effectively buying the support of rural voters with populist policies such as cheap healthcare and subsidies for rice farmers.
Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in northern Chiang Mai, said before the violence began that the disruption of advance polling would add impetus to the calls for an election delay.
“The ability of those against advance voting to keep it from happening today could signal what may come next week - a decision to delay the vote due to an inability to hold the election properly,” Chambers said.
Yingluck, who would probably win the election easily, is set to meet Election Commission officials on Tuesday. The main opposition Democrat Party also plans to boycott the election.
About 49 million voters out of Thailand's population of 66 million are eligible to cast ballots, with about 2.16 million registered for early polling.
Yingluck's government had been proceeding relatively smoothly until her Puea Thai Party miscalculated in November and tried to force through an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother to return a free man despite a 2008 graft conviction he says was politically motivated.
Thaksin, a billionaire former telecoms tycoon, was ousted by the military in 2006.