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Thai Campaign Winds Down Before Election

In Thailand, campaigning is winding down as voters prepare to go to the polls Sunday to elect a new parliament and government.

It is midday in central Bangkok and office workers have flooded the streets to eat lunch at rice and noodle shops lining the area's back alleys.

Several hundred of them are gathered around a pickup truck packed with loudspeakers and covered with campaign posters.

The crowd surges around a candidate as he makes his way down the alley, accompanied by several cabinet ministers, to have lunch with voters at a noodle shop.

This is electioneering in a country where, despite some setbacks, democracy is becoming firmly established 14 years after a popular uprising ended decades of military dominance in government.

Although a constitution adopted after the uprising enshrined democratic values and human freedoms, Thai politics were unstable for years. This year, the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - a populist business tycoon - became the first civilian government to complete its four-year mandate.

An official with the Asia Network for Free and Fair Elections (Amfrel), Mohamed Herizal, says that nevertheless, these elections are not as well organized as those four years ago, which brought Mr. Thaksin to power.

"There is a lot of room for improvement, especially in organizing the elections themselves, and I am talking more on the election administration part, said Mohamed Herizal.

He says there is no standardized layout at the polling stations, which confuses voters. And he says voter education programs have been few.

Some Thai political analysts charge that the government has weakened the electoral commission, which oversees the voting.

In addition, more than one dozen election-related murders have been reported around the country.

And critics say the ruling Thai Rak Thai party has unfairly used its control of the government to promote its candidates.

Public opinion polls indicate that Mr. Thaksin's party is poised to win a substantial majority in the 500-seat assembly.

A professor of government at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, Siripan Nogsuan, says this is because the party has fulfilled many of its promises and has used the mass media effectively.

"Thai Rak Thai is successful in communicating their messages to the people," said Siripan Nogsuan. "On the other hand, the opposition have not materialized [taken advantage of] their opportunities. They have not shown any concrete achievements to the people."

Opposition parties are battling to retain their role in government. They need to win more than two hundred seats to be able to summon and criticize the prime minister and his cabinet.

Opposition leaders argue that this is vital to maintain the system of checks and balances in government.

Campaigning ends Saturday, one day before voters go to the polls.