April 2, 2006

Strong boycott in Thai polls dents PM’s likely win

By Ed Cropley

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Early results from Sunday's snap poll
in Thailand showed a strong protest vote that could keep Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from claiming the mandate he sought
and lead to a constitutional crisis.

Refusing to recognize the election as legitimate, the
opposition boycotted the polls, which Thaksin called three
years early to counter weeks of street protests.

The result is that nearly 70 percent of the 399 seats at
stake were uncontested and many will be left empty, according
to election rules -- preventing a new government being formed.

Thaksin's opponents urged voters to tick the "no vote" box
on their ballots, a strategy that seemed to work in Bangkok
where "no votes" were in a clear majority, Thai media said.
Thaksin won 32 of 37 Bangkok constituencies in polls last year.

But Thaksin's main support is in the countryside and early
returns showed him getting solid support there -- enough to
hand him another big majority if and when parliament convenes.

Thai media said turnout was about 70 percent of the 45
million electorate, compared with 73 percent in February 2005.
Final official results were expected late on Monday.


Thaksin called the election to prove he had majority
support against what he called "mobs" accusing him of
corruption, cronyism and abuse of power. He said he would step
down if his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party got less
than 50 percent of the vote, which looked unlikely.

But the opposition boycott is likely to plunge the country
into a constitutional mess because it will result in empty
seats in the 500-seat parliament.

Even in an uncontested constituency, a sole candidate must
win 20 percent of the eligible vote to claim the seat -- and
that appeared highly unlikely in dozens of constituencies. All
seats must be filled for a new government to be formed.

In one Bangkok seat, there was no candidate on the ballot
-- the unopposed member of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) (Thais
Love Thais) party having been disqualified at the last minute.

In the largely Muslim far south, where telecoms billionaire
Thaksin is deeply unpopular, many unopposed TRT hopefuls were
likely to fall short of the 20 percent threshold.

Bombs wounded four security men after the polls closed in
the region, where more than 1,100 people have been killed in
two years of separatist violence many Muslims blame on Thaksin.

For the moment, Thaksin remains caretaker prime minister
with a caretaker cabinet.

"The poll will produce a protracted deadlock for months,"
political scientist Somjai Phagaphasvivat told Reuters. "The
final outcome is far from certain."

Thaksin, worried about the vote trend, was thinking about
turning the government over to his deputy, the Bangkok Post
said on its Web site (Bangkokpost.com), quoting a TRT official.

After a non-campaign with no competition and no suspense,
Thaksin's party was still expected to get a majority of votes.
Rural Thais -- 70 percent of the 63 million population --
turned out in force to vote for a prime minister who has given
them cheap healthcare and credit during his five years in


The crisis is taking its toll on the economy, paralyzing
business decision-making and sapping the stock market,
Southeast Asia's second-worst performer after Malaysia this

Thailand has already suspended negotiations on free trade
agreements with the United States and Japan.

After saying on Saturday that both sides should "shake
hands after the competition ends," Thaksin hinted his patience
might not last if the street campaign leaders failed to
acknowledge the results of the poll, which is open to 45
million Thais.

"It's time to bring law and order," he told reporters as he
drove away from a polling station in a black Mercedes with his
children, whose tax-free $1.9 billion sale of the telecoms
empire he founded galvanized the opposition movement in

Analysts say a one-week post-election break before street
protests resume on Friday could provide a cooling-off period
for talks between Thaksin and his opponents.

Some voters in Bangkok disagreed. "Most people don't trust
elections any more," said businessman Ponganan Limprajikul, 32.
"I think there will be more protests. More people will come out
to join the protests and they could become more emotional."

(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan and Bill Tarrant
in Bangkok and Chawadee Nualkhair in Pattani)