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Shadow of exiled prime minister hangs over Thailand's first post-coup election

Shadow of exiled prime minister hangs over Thailand's first post-coup election

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed, exiled and allegedly corrupt, was poised for a comeback-by-proxy as his loyalists seemed likely to win Thailand's national election Sunday.
Thaksin, ousted from power by a military coup, may also come back in person early next year, sparking fears of political turbulence and sharp polarization which has already plagued Thailand for two years.
The polls, which opened at 8 a.m. (0100 GMT), are being guarded by some 4,000 troops, most of them in southern Thailand where a Muslim insurgency has taken the lives of more than 2,600 people, said Col. Thanathip Sawangsaeng, spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command.
The balloting, billed as Thailand's return to democracy after 15 months of military-propped rule, will end seven hours later and unofficial results are expected before midnight (1700 GMT) Sunday.
The Election Commission has been barraged by more than 900 complaints of election fraud, mostly related to vote-buying. The night before elections is popularly called the "night of the howling dogs," as canvassers knock on doors to distribute last-minute cash-for-votes in rural areas.
The contest pits the People's Power Party, stacked by Thaksin supporters and adhering to his populist policies, against the Democrat Party, the country's oldest.
"The economy was prosperous when Thaksin was prime minister and I voted for the People's Power Party because the party leader promised to bring Thaksin back to the country," said Pranee Teamsri, the owner of a tailor shop on Bangkok's outskirts after emerging from a polling station.
But a number of others in Bangkok, where the Democrat Party is strong, criticized Thaksin's regime for its corruption, saying the former leader had left Thailand in "a mess."
The top rivals for next prime minister are a study in stark contrasts.
People's Power Party head Samak Sundaravej, 72, is an acid-tongued, ultra-rightist dubbed a political dinosaur by the local press. He also faces charges of involvement in corrupt deals while serving as Bangkok's mayor. But he is seen as Thaksin's proxy and his earthy style appeals to many.
The 43-year-old Abhisit Vejjajiva, who leads the Democrats, is regarded as an intelligent, honest politician but lacking the common touch needed to connect with the mass electorate. English-born and educated at Eton and Oxford, critics say he is more comfortable in elite circles than wooing the key rural voters.
Polls show the People's Power, considered a reincarnation of Thaksin's outlawed Thai Rak Thai Party, will probably garner the most votes but fall short of an outright majority. A coalition government of the Democrats and smaller parties is seen as a possible outcome.
About 5,000 candidates from 39 political parties are contending for 480 seats in parliament's lower house. There are 45 million eligible voters.
"The policy of the People's Power Party is the same as Thaksin's party so that is why many people like me voted for the PPP," said Samran Kalaween, a Bangkok suburban housewife.
Chalerm Yoobamrung, a parliamentary candidate of the People's Power Party, said at a final campaign rally that Thaksin would come home from his self-imposed exile in London on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14.
But speaking after casting his vote, Samak said only that some time after the election would be needed before he returned. He added that the former prime minister would have to face the criminal charges against him and stay out of politics.
Ousted by a bloodless military coup 15 months ago, Thaksin faces a slew of corruption charges but remains popular among the rural masses and lower income urban residents to whom he offered cheap loans, virtually free medical care and village based development schemes.
Abhisit said Saturday he would allow Thaksin, who is watching the election from Hong Kong, to return "to face charges here so justice will prevail."
Irrespective of Sunday's results even the prospect of Thaksin's return is sure to create further political polarization and raise fears of another coup by the powerful military.
Last week, the country's military-installed parliament approved a controversial internal security law that critics warned will allow the military to maintain a grip on power even after the election.
The new law will allow the Internal Security Operations Command, a key security watchdog, to order curfews, restrict freedom of movement and curb the powers of government officials in situations deemed harmful to national security.
Despite the sharp political divisions, national deputy police chief Gen. Wichien Photphosri told The Associated Press that no "unwanted incidents" are expected Sunday. Nonetheless, he said some 200,000 police and soldiers will be deployed nationwide to ensure security.
The election, supposed to restore democracy after the coup, comes after almost two years of intense political instability that began with popular demonstrations demanding that Thaksin step down because of alleged corruption and abuse of power. The protest culminated in the coup.
Thaksin, whose Thai Rak Thai took power in 2001, was returned to government in 2005 by a landslide victory that gave it an unprecedented absolute parliamentary majority.
After the coup, Thaksin, a 58-year-old billionaire, was legally barred from office for five years and charged with a barrage of corruption-related crimes. He is residing in self-imposed exile in England, where he owns the Manchester City football club.


Updated : 2021-05-06 13:03 GMT+08:00