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Thai By-Elections Aim to Fill 40 Seats but Fate of New Assembly Still Uncertain

Voters in parts of Thailand go to the polls Sunday in a re-run of elections three weeks ago for the lower house of parliament. Candidates in 40 districts failed to win enough votes in the first round because of a boycott by the opposition. However, some seats still are not likely to be filled in this round, placing Thailand on the brink of a constitutional crisis.

Thailand is holding the by-elections in an effort to convene the parliament before a constitutional deadline, May 2.

By law the new parliament is to convene within 30 days of elections, which were held on April 2. However, it can only convene with all the seats filled. Because three main opposition parties boycotted the vote, 40 are empty. Experts say some seats are likely to still be vacant after the by-election on Sunday - potentially leading to a constitutional crisis.

The Thai senate, the upper house of parliament, may also find itself without enough members. Senate elections were held last Wednesday, but final results have not been released.

The Election Commission is investigating irregularities in 65 districts and is likely to disqualify some winners.

Candidates for the senate cannot be members of political parties. But unofficial returns show that more than half of the seats were won by individuals with links to the governing party of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was re-elected prime minister by a landslide last year.

Chulalongkorn University Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak says the new senate is looking much the same as the previous senate.

"The new senate is dominated by government-connected individuals but with a small minority of liberal, progressive senators who are going to be the vocal voice of the opposition and for the general public who are dissatisfied with Thaksin," he said.

Thitinan adds that the new senate is likely to disappoint people who hoped it would fulfill its role as an independent monitor of government.

In the April 2 election, Mr. Thaksin's party won all but one seat so it is set to continue dominating the government.

Mr. Thaksin called the lower house elections three years early, hoping to defuse mass protests calling for his resignation because of allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

After the vote, he stepped aside and said he would not be a candidate for prime minister in the new parliament.

He proposed that parliament oversee constitutional revisions drafted by an independent panel of experts.

However, the opposition says Mr. Thaksin still wields power behind the scenes and his party would control any reform process.

Thammasat University Professor Somphob Manarangsan says the opposition wants Thaksin's party to relinquish power.

"The causes of the confrontation in Thailand have not been reduced even though it's temporarily calming down. So, the need for a more neutral government to re-settle these sort or imbalances becomes more probable," said Somphob.

The opposition says its demonstrations will resume in May and will continue until the Thaksin government resigns.

The confrontation is likely to be aggravated by any stalemate over the new parliament, leading to renewed fears of social unrest.