BANGKOK — THAIS go to the polls Sunday in parliamentary elections widely expected to determine the pace of democratization in a country that has sought a political system to fit its world-class economy.
In broad terms the election, in which more than 2,000 candidates from 14 parties are contesting 360 parliamentary seats, pits "pro-democracy" parties committed to greater government accountability against "pro-military" parties more attached to the status quo, which includes a substantial role for the military in politics.
The electoral showdown follows four months of intense pro-democracy activism that was triggered in May when soldiers gunned down scores of civilians protesting military political intervention.
But after a wave of optimism for the arrival of lasting political change, there is a deep unease among many voters. Many sense that a system of money- and military-dominated politics will change only very gradually. Others say further confrontations may be in store before a new order comes about.
"My heart tells me that we could see a landslide in favor of the `angelic parties' but my head says, `No, it will be the same old gang,' " says a political scientist at Thammasat University who requested anonymity. (The pro-democracy print media here generally refer to the two camps as "angel" and "devil" parties.)
That perception was reflected in a recent nationwide poll in which pro-democratic parties and candidates easily outscored their rivals in popularity but were eclipsed by the pro-military parties and candidates when interviewers asked about likely winners.
An independent electoral monitoring organization, PollWatch, has highlighted the continued importance of vote-buying and other irregularities, but most analysts expect this to be one of Thailand's cleanest elections ever.
The Interior Ministry has given substantial support to PollWatch and other efforts to minimize traditional vote-rigging, often carried out through the police, the military, other government officials, and local powerbrokers.
Political observers credit prospects for cleaner elections to interim Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, who is serving a second term since the February 1991 coup. Political observers throughout the political spectrum note Mr. Anand's reputation as the country's "white knight," with a knack for finessing political impasses.
"The provinces are not as tightly wrapped up as they were in the past. Last time there was no real campaigning, they just dumped money. But now the candidates have to campaign as well as dump money," says an academic activist who asked to remain anonymous. "But this time people have a better chance of exercising their free vote than ever before."
AS with past elections, no party is expected to win an outright majority. The formation of a governing coalition will take several days after the results are released.
Most analysts say there is a good chance the National Development (Chart Pattana) party of the former Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan will win the most Parliament seats, enabling the veteran politician to form a coalition.
Pro-democracy parties say Mr. Chatichai, who was branded "unusually wealthy" by a government committee, is unacceptable as a prime minister or as a coalition partner. Chatichai was overthrown in a coup led by Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon in February 1991.
Thai voters, who had grown frustrated with corruption in the Chatichai government, initially welcomed the coup. But after elections in March of this year led to a pro-military government, students and pro-democracy activists took to the streets. Thai soldiers fired on the protesters on May 17-18. The official death toll has been 44, but critics say the true number may be several hundred.
While Chatichai seems isolated from both the military parties and the pro-democracy parties who had applauded his overthrow, political observers say the former prime minister may ask at least one of the four parties in the pro-democracy camp to join a coalition government.
A more volatile political situation, at least in Bangkok, could arise if Chatichai has to ally himself with the other pro-military parties, still widely tarnished for their association with the role in bringing about the bloodshed in May.
If the underdog opposition parties are able to put together a coalition, the most likely leader will be Chuan Leekpai, a respected technocrat and veteran of the Democrat Party, which is noted for stressing policies rather than personality.
Political observers question how far the pro-democracy sentiment has spread into the countryside, where the majority of Thailand's 54 million people live.