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Thailand's Governing Party Confident Ahead of General Election

Thai voters go to the polls Sunday to elect a new government. The ruling Thai Rak Thai appears to have a commanding lead.

Independent polls show strong support for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party in the run up to the general election on February 6.

The business newspaper Krungthep Thurakit, for example, is forecasting the party will capture 314 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives, against 248 at the last election. This would allow the party to rule on its own, rather than at the head of a coalition.

Telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra founded the nationalist and pro-business Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai party) in 1998, when the Thai economy contracted by 10 percent amid the fallout from the Asian financial crisis.

Pasuk Pongpaichit, a political economist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, says big businesses found themselves burdened by debt from heavy overseas borrowing at that time. Vulnerable to foreign takeover, she says they looked to Thai Rak Thai for protection.

"The big business group [through Thai Rak Thai] has found [an] opportunity to capture the state after the crisis in 1997; they are threatened by globalization and democratization in Thailand," she said.

Thai Rak Thai spokesman, Suranand Vejjajiva, attributes the party's continuing dominance, in part, to reforms in 1997 that made it more difficult for parties to leave a coalition. Before then, coalition governments were plagued by defections and none had lasted a full term since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

"I think we have set the tone for new politics or modern Thai politics with the new constitution in 1997. There's still a test and trial period, but Thai Rak Thai itself was established under this new ground rule," he noted.

Mr. Suranand says voter support is also based on the party's ability to implement its policies.

"We have proved we can deliver on our campaign promises in the past four years and that's why I think we have the credibility to be able to say what we would like to do in the next four years. And people believe that we can do it," he added.

Mr. Thaksin's populist policies have included a low-cost universal health scheme and special development assistance funds for thousands of villages. He has also presided over economic recovery, profiting from policies initiated by the opposition Democrat Party before Thai Rak Thai ousted them from government in 2001.

And while the government has been criticized for its authoritarian style, and accused of violating human rights and stifling press freedom, analysts such as Professor Pasuk, say it is Mr. Thaksin's populist policies that many voters remember.

"It's become a big challenge to any opposition part," she explained.

Mr. Thaksin's government faces three main challengers: the Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party, the recently formed Mahachon, and the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) party.

The Democrats are fighting to win at least 201 of the 500 legislative seats, sufficient to launch a no-confidence motion in the prime minister. Mahachon, a Democrat Party ally, is promoting free education, farmer debt relief and land redistribution for the poor.

But the Democrats are deeply divided, with younger members trying to wrest control from the conservative leadership under Banyat Bantadthan.

Political scientist Somjai Phagasavivat, says the opposition parties have failed to mount an effective challenge to Thai Rak Thai's influence.

"Thaksin has no rival, no serious rival comparing for example with Khun Banyat and all the others,” he said. “These personality are not in the same that could compare with Khun [Mr.] Thaksin."

The outlook was not so rosy for Thai Rak Thai last year. The government lost support over its handling of separatist violence in predominantly Muslim southern provinces, while the rising price of oil also cut into its popularity.

But Mr. Thaksin has since won accolades for his government's response to last month's tsunami disaster, which claimed more than five thousand lives in Thailand.

The opposition has an uphill task stopping him from winning an historic second term. The main question now is whether such control will be a positive factor in ensuring both political stability and political debate.