Tight race predicted in Thai vote

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Voters hope the December 23 elections will bring stability and economic growth [Reuters]

Final campaigning is under way in Thailand as the people prepare to vote in parliamentary elections on Sunday.

The poll is supposed to end more than a year of military rule.

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 firmly divided, with the poorer northeast still loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, the twice-elected prime minister, deposed by the military in September 2006.

The central regions however, are vehemently opposed to the return of the millionaire politician.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said: “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.”

For Sanoh Nunoi, a rice farmer, Thaksin was the protector of his meagre fortunes.

Nunoi, 52, said: “We want Thaksin back because the economy is very bad … it’s a disaster. Everything is so expensive, with prices more than doubling. We need him to come back.”

Peoples’ power

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

Thaksin will not be running for election, having said he is out of politics for good.

But in his place is the Peoples Power Party (PPP), built from the ruins of the Thai Rak Thai party, which was dissolved by the military.

Headed by the blunt but charismatic Samak Sundaravej, the former Bangkok governor, the party claims it will win about half of the 480 parliamentary seats up for grabs.

And the PPP has made it clear that voting for them is in effect a vote for the exiled prime minister – a prospect unlikely to please the military government, which has sought to purge Thailand of any trace of Thaksin and TRT.

Thaksin has become a popular hero since he
was deposed as prime minister [Reuters]

Sutin Nopkham, PPP candidate for Patumthani district, said: “If everyone votes for the PPP, Thaksin will be able to come back. He can help us as he used to … everyone loves him so much.”

Tony Cheng, Al Jazeera’s correspondent reporting from Thailand, said Thaksin has cleverly managed to stay in the spotlight.

Cheng said: “[Thaksin’s] multi-million dollar purchase of Manchester City soccer club has ensured that in football mad Thailand, he’s regularly in the news. The generals who ousted him, have in effect turned him into a popular hero.”

Democrat party

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

Ong-art Klampaiboon, a Democrat spokesman, 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?'”

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.

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

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

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

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

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