Pro-Thaksin candidate keeps a low profile ahead of Thai polls

AFP

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BURIRAM, Thailand (AFP) — Under the military’s watchful eyes, Prakit Poldeeh, a supporter of deposed Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, is keeping a low profile as he campaigns for this month’s elections.

“This is the most difficult campaign for me,” said 59-year-old Prakit, who is running for his seventh term in parliament in Sunday’s polls, the first since last year’s coup ousting Thaksin.

“Election rules are so unclear that I can’t really do much. I’ve opted to stay quiet for fear of violating the rules. Instead of me going out, I send volunteers to voters to explain my policy,” he told AFP at his office.

Prakit is running for the People Power Party (PPP), which was taken over by members of Thaksin’s disbanded Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party.

A military-appointed court dissolved Thaksin’s party in late May for election fraud.

The court also banned Thaksin and 110 Thai Rak Thai officials from politics for five years. Since the 2006 coup, the ousted premier, a self-made billionaire, has been in exile in London where he has bought Manchester City football club.

While the junta says the polls will restore democracy, observers ask how free and fair the elections can be when about one-third of Thailand, mainly Thaksin’s strongholds such as Buriram, is still under martial law.

“The coup government wants to block PPP from winning,” Prakit says, adding authorities have yet to allow him to display campaign billboards even though those of opposition candidates are seen across this rural province.

“I am still waiting for permission on the billboards. What can I do?” shrugs the softly spoken man.

While no troops or tanks are seen in the streets of Buriram, about 410 kilometres (250 miles) northeast of Bangkok, Prakit says soldiers, often disguised as villagers, come to his town meetings with voters.

“I am under pressure from ‘observers,'” the candidate says, referring to soldiers.

“They record my speeches. Villagers told me they are afraid to go to my meetings because of the presence of soldiers. I can’t really go out to meet villagers,” he sighs.

When Prakit ventured out for campaigning on one Saturday afternoon, he spoke for just five minutes in front of around 50 voters, mostly farmers.

“Thank you for your support, and please vote for me,” he said, wearing a blue shirt and jeans with a colourful scarf around his waist in a traditional Thai style.

The small crowd cheered and clapped. After the brief speech, one villager offered Prakit a drink.

The scene was in stark contrast to that at a recent event in the campaign by Thailand’s oldest political outfit, the Democrat Party, which aims to make inroads into Thaksin’s electoral bases such as Buriram.

When Democrat candidate Chaiwat Sinsuwong spoke on the top of his campaign pick-up truck here, not a single voter showed up to see him.

The 58-year-old man was visibly angry when asked about campaigning in the pro-Thaksin province, only saying: “This is no longer Thaksin’s stronghold.”

Not so for Kiean Pawasri, a 55-year-old farmer, who was among the crowd during Prakit’s speech.

“I will vote for PPP because PPP will carry on Thaksin’s policy to help the poor,” he said, adding: “I want Thaksin to come back and work for us again.”

Thaksin led his party to two election victories on the back of strong support among farmers as he launched populist measures — debt relief, investment funds and cheap medical care — in a bid to boost the rural economy.

Most of Thailand’s 64 million population live in rural areas.

But average monthly household income in impoverished Buriram, whose main business is rice farming, still stands at just 7,800 baht (about 200 dollars), roughly a quarter of the 30,000 baht average in Bangkok, according to official statistics.

A 31-year-old elementary school teacher with a baby also said she would vote for Prakit.

“I support PPP. I know which party is good for our country,” said the woman, who declined to be named, as she chatted with villagers at Prakit’s campaign stop.

Prakit says he is confident of victory in the December elections.

“Although coup leaders use tricks against us, and want people to get confused about the elections, I know villagers support me,” he said.

“Villagers want PPP to win so that the party can work for them. I am ready to work for them,” Prakit said.

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