March 31, 2006

Thais contemplate post-poll chaos

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand entered an election-eve
"cooling off" period on Saturday amid predictions of
constitutional chaos after a poll called by Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra to try to foil a campaign to oust him.

With the main opposition parties boycotting Sunday's
election, candidates for Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party
are running unopposed in 168 of 400 constituencies.

But analysts say that as many as 50 of them could fail to
win the minimum 20 percent of the vote they need to record
victory in an uncontested seat, casting doubt on the validity
of the overall result, which is expected to be announced early
on Monday.

For a new government to be formed, all 500 members of
parliament -- 400 from the constituencies, 100 from a
proportional representation system of "party lists" -- must be
elected, the constitution says.

The boycott persuaded Thaksin to turn the vote into what is
effectively a referendum, saying he would step aside if his
party took less than 50 percent of the vote.

An opposition bid to have voters tick the "abstention" box
on ballot papers as a vote against Thaksin, whom they accuse of
corruption, cronyism and abuse of power, looks set to make an
impact in Bangkok, scene of weeks of rallies calling for his

But in a "pseudo-election" -- as one newspaper put it --
thrown up by a democracy that has been through 23 coups or
attempted coups in 74 years, nothing can be taken for granted.

"Bangkok voters keep changing their minds. They are a very
unpredictable type," said Somchai Srisuthiyakorn of P-Net, an
unofficial election watchdog.

The opposition and the People's Alliance for Democracy
(PAD), the ad hoc coalition bent on driving the telecoms
billionaire from office, will also be keeping a close eye on
the polls for signs of the cheating which is routine at

"There could be all kinds of vote rigging in those
constituencies, from buying votes to getting government
officials to fabricate the results," Somchai said.


The constitutionally neutral Election Commission has come
under intense pressure in the last few days of campaigning to
disqualify Thaksin from the race.

At one point PAD protesters in yellow headbands and
t-shirts surrounded the commission's offices in the capital,
searching the trunks of cars to try to get their hands on
commissioners they said were soft on Thaksin.

On Friday, a last-ditch court bid to have Thaksin kicked
off the ballot failed when the Administrative Court refused to
hear a petition from PAD leaders, who include Thaksin's former
political mentor, Chamlong Srimuang.

The 70-year-old maverick ex-general and ascetic Buddhist
gave huge impetus to the anti-Thaksin street campaign, who
remembered him as the leader of a successful -- but bloody --
"people power" uprising against military rule in 1992.

With Chamlong on board, the urban campaign drew crowds of
up to 130,000 people, but with unwavering support from the
rural masses who make up 70 percent of Thailand's 63 million
people, Thaksin has never looked likely to heed the calls to
step aside.

"I would like to see every party respect the people's
decision on April 2," he told reporters on Friday. "Let's
reconcile. Let bygones be bygones and I will form a government
that will bring the most reconciliation."

But in a polarized political climate, there appears little
room for compromise or negotiation.

"TRT will win the electoral numbers game, but the suspense
will begin if a considerable number of the party's candidates
fail to gain the support of that all-important and decisive 20
percent," the Bangkok Post said in an editorial.