Tensions rise as Thais head to polls

On Sunday, supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra are expected to win a majority in the first parliamentary elections since last September's military coup.

Thai voters go to the polls Sunday in the first elections to be held since a bloodless military takeover last year. But the final results may not be to the generals' liking, dimming the prospect for a smooth hand over of power and an end to a protracted political crisis.

Election officials expect a large turnout after nearly 3 million out of 45 million eligible voters cast advance or absentee ballots last weekend. The elections are the first to be run under a new military-backed Constitution, Thailand's 18th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Politicians have already vowed to amend the 2007 Constitution, which gives judges, bureaucrats, and generals immense powers to keep elected governments in check.

In recent weeks, tensions have risen over the strong showing of the People's Power Party (PPP), which is openly loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Polling is illegal during the final week of campaigning, but previous polls indicated that the PPP may win as many as half of the 480 seats in parliament, well ahead of the second-place Democrat Party.

Whoever takes office will face the challenge of restoring confidence in an economy that has slipped behind competitors like Vietnam and Malaysia in terms of growth. A grinding separatist insurgency in southern Thailand has killed over 2,600 since 2004 and deepened the Muslim majority's mistrust of the Thai government. Perhaps the thorniest task is to mend the social divisions exposed by the backlash to Thaksin and his brand of economic populism that was seen as a threat to traditional elites.

Analysts say the gap between the coup leaders' claim to be saving the nation from ruin and the economic hardship felt by many in the countryside during their rule is a powerful recruiting tool. Among PPP activists, a constant message is the unfair treatment of Thaksin at the hands of generals who they say are less than competent.

"The best bet is the major effect of this coup on the electorate will be to give a martyred image to Thaksin and the party to which he is now associated, and therefore possibly even increase their standing at the polls," says Chris Baker, coauthor of a critical biography on Thaksin.

Worries of another military coup

An outright victory for the PPP would be an affront to the military, which ousted Mr. Thaksin in a royally sanctioned coup last September, but has failed to erase his popularity among the rural masses. On the campaign trail, PPP leaders have promised to restore Thaksin's policies and to bring him back to Thailand from exile in the UK. For their part, anti-Thaksin campaigners who put tens of thousands onto the streets last year say they would mobilize again if he were to return.

Such rhetoric has fed speculation of an imminent coup to prevent the PPP from taking office if they sweep the polls. Army chief General Anupong Paochinda has ruled out a postelection coup, though, and analysts say a more likely tactic is a legal challenge to the PPP's victory, such as the mass disqualification of candidates for vote-buying or other illegal acts.

Surapong Suebwonglee, secretary-general of the PPP, says it's time for the military to let politicians go back to work. "If there's another military coup, I don't think that people will be giving flowers to the soldiers," he says.

A tough sell for Democrat Party

Without an absolute majority, the PPP will probably be shut out, as other parties will come under pressure from the military to form a government. "Even though the PPP may get the largest numbers of seats, they won't be able to form a coalition because the other parties won't join them," says Nidhi Eoseewong, a retired historian.

That outcome would favor the Democrat Party, which lost its majority in 2001 to Thai Rak Thai, the party led by Thaksin that was dissolved in May. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has promised to reverse the nationalist initiatives of the interim military government, including curbs on foreign investment and a controversial capital-controls tax.

Analysts say a Democrat-led coalition may prove short-lived due to stiff opposition from the PPP, as well as competing demands from its allies. During the 1980s and 1990s, Thailand endured a revolving door of coalition administrations that never completed their terms, relegating economic planning to short-term fixes that evaporated in a 1997-98 financial meltdown.

"The pressure from people close to Thaksin won't ease at all, and the Democrat government will be coming in as the head of a fractious coalition which is hard to manage," says Michael Montesano, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore.

On the campaign trail last week, Mr. Abhisit, a British-educated career politician, insisted that coalition governments can perform well, provided party leaders stick to agreed policies. He said Thaksin was welcome to return after the election, but he would have to first face criminal charges filed against him in a Bangkok court over a 2003 land deal.

As his van raced between brief stops at outdoor markets, Abhisit played down the threat of further intervention by the military. He pointed to the poor performance of its handpicked government that steadily lost support. "The military has learned a lesson this last year. It knows that it's easy to seize power, but it's harder to hold onto power," he says.

However, the current administration's failure to revive the economy, together with its shrill propaganda aimed at discrediting Thaksin and his legacy, may have inadvertently played into the hands of its foes. Far from being neutral, coup leader Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratglin (ret.) has lectured voters to elect "good people loyal to the king," a dig at Thaksin, whom he accused last year of disrespecting the crown – a very serious allegation in Thailand.

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