BC-AS-POL–Thailand-Election-Thaksin’s Dominance, 1st Ld-Writethru,1109

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© AP

2007-12-19 05:14:38 –

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) – It could be the cash, or it could be charisma, but one thing is clear: As Thailand votes Sunday, politics remains dominated by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist billionaire ousted by a military coup 15 months ago.

Thaksin, 58, commands the political stage despite living in exile, being barred

from office, having his political party dissolved by the courts and being charged with corruption-related crimes.

«The only real issue at the election will be whether or not to support ex-Prime Minister Thaksin,» pro-democracy activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn, an associate professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, wrote in an analysis circulated by e-mail.
Judging by opinion polls, the answer is many Thais will back the People’s Power Party, where Thaksin loyalists have regrouped with his endorsement. The surveys project the party will win the most seats, though fall short of the majority that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party held before the coup.

The army unseated Thaksin with relative ease in September 2006 while he was on a trip abroad, but it has had little success denting his popularity with Thailand’s rural majority.

Thaksin wooed the long neglected countryside with generous assistance programs, the first prime minister to do so, though some say the wealthy businessman simply bought more votes in Thailand’s notoriously corrupt elections.

If no party wins a majority, the Thaksin grouping will vie with the Democrat Party, expected to finish second, to line up enough support from smaller parties to form a majority and name the next prime minister.

The fractious coalition likely to emerge would be hard pressed to implement any significant policies, much less tackle the country’s most pressing crisis, a Muslim insurgency in the far south that has taken 2,600 lives since early 2004.
The interim government has made little headway in restoring peace, and the lack of campaign debate on the issue suggests that politicians are happy to leave the volatile matter in the military’s hands.

While prime minister, Thaksin became so popular that he began to marginalize the country’s traditional power holders: politicians, bureaucrats, big business and even the monarchy.

In response, the interim government appointed by the army wrote and won public approval for a new constitution that reins in the power of political parties.
«We will have democracy under the guardianship, under the custody of the ruling elite who have taken power after the coup,» said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. «We are going to see a weak coalition government emerge.

Still, the prospect of Thaksin supporters coming to power is rattling Thailand’s political establishment.

A People’s Power Party victory would be a «disaster» for the military, Thitinan said, adding that the army is likely to pressure other parties to back the Democrat Party. «They cannot allow the PPP to be the government that undoes their coup.
The unease can be measured by the rumors swirling around the Thai capital: that the People’s Power Party will be disqualified, that the elections will be postponed or that the army will stage another coup if Thaksin’s supporters prevail.

Whether Thaksin would return to Thailand remains unclear. Corruption charges were filed against him after the coup, and he said he would not return until democracy was restored. Now, he could be hoping the new party will be strong enough to shield him from prosecution.

Thaksin, who used a fortune earned from telecommunications to found the Thai Rak Thai Party, swept to power in 2001 in a flashy campaign that painted him as a man of new ideas.

His vast wealth meant he could dominate Thailand’s traditional money politics, buying politicians and votes at will.

A large network remains in place in the rural northeast, a Thaksin stronghold, where party canvassers _ who are said to be well-funded _ are working to turn out the vote on Sunday.

«People like his populist policies but what they like most is his money,» said Somkiat Phonpai, an environmental activist in Ubon Ratchathani province. «People here vote because of the canvassers, not because of the policies or the candidates.
Still, Thaksin’s populism, including universal heath care and funds for village development, ignited a revolution in Thai politics.

The economic wisdom of the programs is hotly debated, but politically they empowered rural voters, for the first time putting across the message that their vote affects their lives.

«I heard that if we vote for the People’s Power Party, Thaksin will come back. I want Thaksin to come back because he did a lot of good things for the country,» said 48-year-old La-aet Dansuk, who makes shawls with natural dyes in the northeastern province of Udon Thani.

She recalled how her profits were boosted by a Thaksin-initiated project that brought wholesalers from Japan and Australia to her village.

Thaksin was an «agent of transformation,» Thitinan said. «The Thai Rak Thai Party is gone, but its platform has been adopted by all political parties. Thai Rak Thai has awakened the silent majority in the countryside, and Thailand will never be the same.
Thai Rak Thai won a landslide victory in 2005, becoming the first party to win a majority on its own since Thailand became a constitutional democracy in 1932.
But Thaksin’s authoritarian style alienated middle class urban voters. After he became enmeshed in financial scandals, they took to the streets in early 2006, demanding he step down. With the political system at an impasse, the army removed Thaksin in the name of saving democracy.

Now, living in London, he is trying to turn the tables. In a a video distributed on CDs to Thai voters, Thaksin says, «We would like to call for power from the people that will allow us to bring back prosperity, happiness and democracy to the country.

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