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Thai Voters Elect Senators; Attacks Mar Voting in Restive South

Voters in Thailand went to the polls Wednesday for the second time in less than two weeks to elect a Senate amid a continuing political confrontation between the government of Thaksin Shinawatra and the opposition. The voting was marred by two attacks in the country's restive south in which a policeman was killed and several other people wounded.

Suspected Muslim separatists Wednesday attacked two police convoys delivering election materials in Thailand's southernmost province of Narathiwat.

The attacks came after the government extended emergency measures in the troubled region, which give authorities powers of detention without charge and immunity from prosecution. The south has been hit by a Muslim separatist insurgency that has resulted in more than 1,000 deaths in the past two years.

The attacks came as Thai voters went to the polls to elect a 200-member Senate, the upper chamber of parliament.

Under Thailand's 1997 constitution, the Senate is to be independent and act as a check on government. By law, candidates must disassociate themselves from political parties one year before the vote.

The coordinator of the ANFREL election monitoring group, Somsri Hananwatasuk, says that candidates may not campaign publicly, which favors well-known personalities.

"The people, do they know the candidates well? Do they study the background of the candidates? Some candidates might be very good but they are not that popular," said Somsri. "They are not movie stars."

In addition, critics say scores of candidates are affiliated with political parties and many are family members of senior politicians.

As a result, they say the new senate is likely to be dominated by the ruling party of Thaksin Shinawatra. His Thai Rak Thai party won almost all the seats in the lower house two weeks ago because of a boycott by the three main opposition parties.

Mr. Thaksin called the lower house elections three years early after mass demonstrations accusing his government of corruption and abuse of power. After the vote, he took a leave of absence and said he would not be a candidate for prime minister in the coming parliament.

Because of the opposition boycott, 39 seats were not filled. By-elections are being held Sunday, but some seats are still likely to remain empty, which will prevent the new parliament from opening.

Thailand's Asia Foundation representative, James Klein, says the elections have only aggravated political uncertainties.

"There's going to be a lot of back and forth, charges and counter-charges. There's going to be a number of legal battles over the legitimacy of the elections," said Klein. "So there are just so many issues that have not been answered, it's very difficult to see what's going to happen in the future."

The opposition rejects the elections as illegitimate. It wants a neutral prime minister to be appointed to oversee constitutional reforms and new elections.

Mr. Thaksin's party has indicated it thinks the new parliament should take up political reform and is preparing to ask the courts to rule on whether it can convene without full membership.

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