April 23, 2006

Thai by-elections marred by attacks, protests

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

PATTANI, Thailand (Reuters) - Thais voted in election
reruns on Sunday marred by militant attacks in the restive
Muslim south and protests against Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra's ruling party.

The 40 polls, mostly in southern strongholds of the
Democrat Party that led two other opposition parties to boycott
April 2 general elections, could leave up to 10 parliamentary
seats empty, a senior election official said.

That could force another round of polls next weekend,
meaning no quick end to a constitutional crisis that has forced
Thaksin to cede day-to-day power.

Fear and fatigue loomed large in the Malay-speaking south
where a two-year separatist insurgency has killed more than
1,100, despite declarations from the Buddhist-dominated
government in Bangkok that it is winning against the militants.

The violence persisted on Sunday despite heavy security in
the Muslim-dominated provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani
that are home to most of Thailand's 6 million Muslims.

Before voting began, unknown gunmen killed one man and
wounded a woman near a polling station in Narathiwat. The night
before, militants blew up a bus shelter in Yala and clashed
with security forces. A policeman was badly wounded in the

Last week five people were killed and 30 wounded in the
region during elections for the upper house Senate. Among the
dead were three officials killed when their truck carrying
ballot boxes was blown up.

"No matter how many elections or by-elections we have,
violence never ends in the south," Saringkan Chuwongwuth, 66,
said after voting in Yala.


The government tightened security after intelligence
reports pointed to more attacks on Sunday. Police and soldiers
armed with rifles patrolled the lush, rubber-producing region
in trucks, armored vehicles and on motorcycles.

Some election volunteers feared the heavy security would
only draw attacks from militants targeting police and soldiers.

"You have a 50-50 chance of surviving a militant attack
when you travel alone, but your risk is greater with an escort
from police or troops," said Ning, a village chief in

Even if violence does not disrupt voting in the
by-elections, a solution to the constitutional deadlock is not

Around half the 40 seats at stake are contested only by
Prime Minister Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party
and a candidate has to get 20 percent of the eligible vote to
win in a region where the government is very unpopular.

Unless all its seats are filled, parliament cannot convene,
no new prime minister can be elected to replace Thaksin and no
new government can be formed. Thaksin has handed over
day-to-day power to Chidchai and says he will not seek the job

Ekachai Warunprapa, head of the Election Commission, said
10 southern constituencies may require another round of voting
next weekend before the May 2 constitutional deadline for
parliament to meet within 30 days of a general election.

But some analysts say they cannot see unopposed TRT
candidates mustering the required number of votes no matter how
many by-elections are held in the Muslim south where Thaksin's
government is accused of failing to tackle separatist violence.

Thaksin's unpopularity had prompted some TRT candidates to
avoid using the party logo during campaigning.

Turnout was very low at many polling stations on Sunday and
eight angry voters tore up their ballots in protest. They face
1 year in jail and/or a 20,000 baht fine.

Ekachai said 7 polling stations in one constituency in the
southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat failed to open because
officials did not show up. They would be re-run on Monday.

Many voters vowed to abstain.

"I will tick the 'no vote' box again because I don't like
Thaksin and the way his government handles the Muslim south,"
said a Muslim man who owns a rubber wood factory in Narathiwat.

(Additional reporting by Arada Therdthammakun)