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Thailand's PM fights uphill reelection battle

Polls suggest that Thailand's opposition Puea Thai Party (PTP), which is loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and led by his sister, will win the largest share in a divisive July 3 parliamentary vote.

By Correspondent / June 14, 2011

Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of toppled former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the prime ministerial candidate for the country's biggest opposition Pheu Thai Party, greets her supporters during an election campaign in Nong Khai province, east of Bangkok, last week.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters

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Bangkok, Thailand

Nearly five years after a military coup upended a fragile democracy and set off chaotic political convulsions, Thailand is gearing up for a critical election on July 3.

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Voters are electing lawmakers to a 500-seat parliament, in which two major parties are vying to lead a coalition government. Polls suggest that the opposition Puea Thai Party (PTP), which is loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and led by his sister, will win the largest share in what would be a rerun of a December 2007 election held under military rule.

Analysts warn, however, that a PTP-led government could be unstable due to resistance from the military and other forces opposed to the rehabilitation of Mr. Thaksin, who held power before the coup. Conversely, a military-backed coalition that shuts out PTP may trigger mass protests by Thaksin's antigovernment "red-shirt" supporters in Thailand, a longtime US military ally.

Critical succession period

For Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Oxford-educated leader of the ruling Democrat Party, an election defeat could lead to more than a contrite concession speech. PTP leaders have threatened to investigate Mr. Abhisit for ordering last year’s suppression of violent red-shirt demonstrators in Bangkok in which 92 people died. Scores of protesters were jailed for violent acts but no civilian or military official has faced prosecution.

A defeat for Abhisit would also be a blow to his royalist backers who fear losing control during a delicate succession, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, has been hospitalized since 2009 and recently underwent surgery.

“The elite do not wish to see a red government to be in charge during the critical [succession] period,” he says.

Thaksin's sister on the rise

Abhisit’s main challenger is Yingluck Shinawatra, a businesswoman and Thaksin’s youngest sister. Her slick campaign has energized PTP supporters and drawn comparisons with Thaksin, who has called her his “clone”. She has declined calls for a televised debate with Abhisit, a skilled orator in Thai and English, and focused instead on choreographed campaign stops.

While Abhisit is scathing in his criticism of Thaksin, he sidesteps personal attacks on Ms. Yingluck, who has never held public office. “I think politicians need to develop their professionalism and experience in politics, but it’s up to the people whether they think that’s a relevant factor,” he told a group of foreign correspondents last week.

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