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Vote Buying Rampant During Thai Elections

Thailand holds general elections Sunday, heralding a return to democratic rule after the military coup of last year. As VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok, with the return of democracy comes the old practice of vote-buying - a problem that persists despite government efforts to stamp it out.

Bangkok's Klong Toey neighborhood is home to some of the city's poorest slums. In the shadow of sleek new expressways and gleaming high-rise buildings sit wooden shacks with rusting corrugated iron roofs and festering open sewers. This is home of those who have been left out of Thailand's economic miracle.

It is to poor communities like this that party workers looking to win votes flock at election time, handing out everything from umbrellas to clothing. But the most effective of the voter incentives is cash. The money is usually distributed by canvassers - often community chiefs - who promise a specific number of votes in exchange for cash handouts.

A community leader lays out a sack stuffed with campaign materials and - speaking quietly so as not to be heard by passersby - explains how he is responsible for delivering the votes on election day. He does not wish to be named for fear of reprisals, by both the authorities and the party that paid him.

"Suppose I promise 500 votes at a rate of [$16] for each vote. If on election day, the votes do not match up against the money disbursed, I will be in trouble," he said. "If you accept, you must be able to deliver. Otherwise, as you have heard, election canvassers have been shot or otherwise hurt."

The interim government installed by the military has launched an aggressive campaign to stamp out vote buying like this. Penalties include imprisonment for both those who pay the money and those who accept it.

The measures appear to be having little effect.

All parties condemn the vote buying. But residents here and in other parts of Thailand accuse a number of parties - including the front-running People Power Party and the Democrat Party - of engaging in some form of the practice.

Nopadol Patama is deputy secretary general of the People Power Party - which residents say has been among those buying votes in the neighborhoods of Klong Toey.

"Vote-buying has been with Thailand for many years. The Election Commission, which is an independent body, has to take immediate action to curb vote buying," says Nopadol. "Political parties hate vote buying as much as the election commission. So, they have to enforce the law strictly. We welcome strict law enforcement. Vote buying is not good."

The interim government's campaign against vote buying is part of its efforts to stamp out corruption - one of the reasons the military gave last year for carrying out the coup.