Rallies to mark final phase of Thai election campaign


Democrat Party leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva (L), and People Power party leader, Samak Sundaravej




BANGKOK (AFP) — Thailand enters its final day of election campaigning Friday, with rallies planned in the capital as the kingdom gears up to vote in a new leader and end more than a year of military rule.

People will head to polling booths on Sunday in the first vote since twice-elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a coup in September 2006 after months of political turmoil and street protests.

Many of Thailand’s 45.65 million voters are hoping the elections will bring stability back to a nation that has seen 18 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

But the country remains fiercely divided, with the poorer northeast still loyal to Thaksin, while people in more prosperous Bangkok and the central regions are vehemently opposed to the return of the millionaire politician.

“What emerges very clearly is this election is about whether or not you support Thaksin and (his party) Thai Rak Thai, or whether or not you support the junta and those who opposed him,” said Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a politics lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

Two major parties have emerged as frontrunners, and both are hoping that rallies late Friday in Bangkok will give their campaigns a last-minute boost.

The People Power Party (PPP), headed by the blunt but charismatic former Bangkok governor Samak Sundaravej, is made up of ex-members of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, which was dissolved by a junta-appointed tribunal in May.

It claims it will win about half of the 480 parliamentary seats up for grabs, a prospect unlikely to please the ruling junta, which has sought to purge Thailand of any trace of Thaksin and TRT.

The PPP has said that if it wins the polls, it will bring Thaksin back from his self-imposed exile in Britain, where he has bought Manchester City football club.

Campaign manager Chalerm Yoobamrung said he plans to announce a date for Thaksin’s return at the party’s rally in Bangkok’s Sanam Luang park.

“Our final rally is expected to bring about 100,000 people, because I do believe people want to hear when Thaksin will come back,” he told AFP.

A more palatable option for the military, analysts say, would be a victory for Thailand’s oldest political outfit, the Democrat Party, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has styled himself as a premier-in-waiting.

Democrat spokesman Ong-art Klampaiboon said the party’s message would be clear at its final rally, which is being held next to an upmarket shopping mall.

“It will be (a) campaign of ‘will you vote for the party that made crisis in the country, or will you vote for (a) party which will move the country forward?'” he told AFP.

Neither party is expected to win a clear majority, however, with a clutch of smaller outfits likely to join forces with either the PPP or the Democrat Party to form a coalition government.

Coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin has said he will respect the outcome of the elections, but the PPP has already accused the junta of trying to sabotage its chances at the polls.

Observers also question how free and fair elections can be when about one-third of the country, mainly Thaksin’s electoral bases, is still under martial law.

The election takes place following the approval, in an August referendum, of a post-coup constitution.

Critics warn the army-backed charter rolls back democratic reforms and will likely install a weak coalition government while returning real authority to the military and bureaucracy.

On Thursday, the country’s army-appointed parliament approved a controversial security bill, which was heavily criticised by rights groups for giving the military sweeping powers to suspend basic rights.

Although the legislation was watered down at the last minute, it was passed by the National Legislative Assembly just a day before parliament dissolves ahead of the polls.

Accusations of vote buying and coercion have surfaced during absentee balloting, which saw a record 2.95 million Thais cast votes last weekend.

Election campaigning has so far been uninspired, Giles said, with the policies of the main parties largely indistinguishable as they scramble to try and fill the hole left by TRT.

“It isn’t very exciting in the sense that it doesn’t really matter what anyone says or put forward in the campaign — I think most people know which side of the major divide they stand,” said Giles.



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