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Thai Voters Prepare to Elect Senate Amid Continuing Political Stalemate

In Thailand, voters are preparing to go to the polls Wednesday, for the second time in less than three weeks, this time to elect a Senate. The Thai Senate is supposed to be independent and above partisan politics, but it has been affected by the ongoing political confrontation between the government of Thaksin Shinawatra and his opponents.

Under Thailand's 1997 Constitution, the 200-member Senate is to be above party politics. Candidates must disassociate themselves from political parties at least one year before running.

However, the coordinator of the Asian Network for Free Elections, Somsri Hananwatasuk, says this is not the case with many contenders.

"Many of them, maybe more than 150 people, are related to political parties or (are) a wife or a father or a sister of the politicians," he said.

Opposition leaders charge that the government of Thaksin Shinawatra has exerted undue influence over the Senate, which chooses the members of regulatory agencies, such as the election and anti-corruption commissions.

The spokesman for the Democrat Party, Ong-art Klampaiboon, says the Senate has failed to fulfill its role of providing checks and balances during Mr. Thaksin's time in office.

"In the past six years, most of the Senate members don't do checks-and-balances, and don't try to work to have good persons in the independent agencies. So we should do some political reform," he said.

The opposition also accuses the Thaksin government of corruption and abuse of power. It wants the constitution to be revised to prevent a ruling party from accumulating too much power.

Mr. Thaksin stepped aside two weeks ago and handed power to an acting prime minister. This followed months of protests, and snap elections in the lower house of parliament on April 2 that were boycotted by the three main opposition parties.

Because of the boycott, several dozen seats in the lower house remain vacant. Although new elections are being held Sunday for those seats - just four days after the Senate elections - some seats are likely to remain empty, which could lead to a constitutional crisis.

Thammasat University Professor Somphob Manarangsan says the Thai constitution requires all seats to be filled before parliament can convene to elect a new prime minister.

"There's going to be quite some problem to the Thai parliamentary opening in the near future," the professor noted. " It's also quite probable that there's going to be a neutral government nominated outside the power of the MPs."

Many opposition leaders are calling for the appointment of a neutral government to oversee constitutional reforms and new elections.

The ruling party, which won almost all of the parliamentary seats in the boycotted elections, is reportedly set to ask the Thai courts whether parliament can convene without full membership.

The opposition says that if that happens, its street demonstrations will resume, and will continue until the Thaksin government relinquishes power completely.