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Thailand Prepares for Elections; Questions Remain About Military's Role


Thailand holds general elections on Sunday, a vote that analysts say will be highly contentious. It will be the first since last year's military coup ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose populist policies had won him re-election by a landslide in 2005. While the campaign has been peaceful and enthusiastic, many voters wonder how the military will react if the results favor Mr. Thaksin's allies. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.

The elections fulfill a promise the leaders of last year's military coup made to return the kingdom to civilian rule. The coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was accused of corruption and lacking respect for Thailand's revered king.

Mr. Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, is now in self-imposed exile in Britain and faces possible prison time if he tries to return to Thailand. Still, he looms large over these elections.

Although his Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved and more than 100 of his allies banned from politics, many supporters have regrouped under the new People Power Party. Its strongest support comes from the same rural areas and working-class neighborhoods that had supported Mr. Thaksin.

The 2006 coup exposed differences between Mr. Thaksin's largely poor, rural supporters, and the urban and upper-middle classes that opposed him. Analysts say those divisions remain in this election.

Nopadol Patama, the PPP's deputy secretary-general, makes it no secret that a vote for his party on Sunday will implicitly be a vote for Mr. Thaksin.

"For many reasons. Some sympathy votes might be for Khun (Mr.) Thaksin, a lot actually. Because of his track record, his vision, and his love for the people. And also, there will be votes for our concrete policies," Nopadol said.

The PPP vows to fight corruption, one of the reasons the military gave for the coup. But vows against corruption ring hollow to many here, where political experts - and some candidates - acknowledge that vote buying continues to be a problem.

Although the military has kept its promises to enact a new constitution and hold elections, there are no guarantees the army will refrain from interfering with the political process once the country returns to civilian rule.

Political analysts expect the PPP to make a strong showing in the race for the new parliament's 480 seats, thanks to the support Mr. Thaksin still enjoys. However, they say the new constitution the military-backed interim administration drew up is designed to prevent any one party from controlling the government.

Many analysts say the PPP will seek to form a coalition with Thaksin supporters in smaller parties to challenge the PPP's archrival, the Democrat Party. The long-established Democrat Party's support comes mostly from Thailand's urban elite and the military.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. He says a battle is brewing between Thaksin supporters and the generals who would like to see him disappear permanently from the political scene.

"This is the dilemma now for the election. It has to take place. It will take place," Thitinan said. "But if Thaksin supporters win by a very large margin, they will insist on forming a government and bringing Thaksin back. If they're not allowed to do so - to form a government - then the election will look like a sham. This is a dilemma for the military."

Thitinan sees signs the military may not be prepared to accept a victory by Mr. Thaksin's backers.

"The military has shown that it's not going back to the barracks. There are a number of provinces in Thailand under martial law, still. The military wants to have the internal security act, a new law that will try to rule, really, from behind the scenes," Thitinan said.

The leaders of last year's coup promise the army will not interfere with the election results. Some politicians say they would like to believe that Thailand has overcome its history of repeated military coups.

The Democrat Party's 43-year-old leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, is a front-runner in the race for prime minister, if Thaksin's supporters can not form a coalition government.

In an interview with VOA, he promises to create conditions that he says will make the military not want to interfere with the government.

"I think there's nothing better than allowing the democratic process and the rule of law to work out all the differences in society," Abhisit said. "If we win the elections, we promise to be a truly democratic government (that) allows our opponents, allows the people who disagree with us, the kind of political space that you would get in proper democracies."

The time since the kingdom's 1932 transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy has been punctuated by 18 military coups. The big question for many is whether this time, the army can be convinced to stay out of politics - no matter who wins the election.