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Thailand Prepares for Contentious Election

Voters in Thailand will cast ballots in a general election Sunday that is expected to return the kingdom to democratic rule following a military coup in 2006. It is a contentious race that pits voters for and against ousted and exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.

Analysts say the battle lines in this election are along the lines of the 2006 coup in which the military, backed by the urban elite, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who has the support of the poor.

More than 5,000 candidates from 39 parties are running for 480 seats in the new parliament.

One of the front-runners in the race for prime minister is Oxford-educated former parliamentarian Abhisit Vejjajiva, 43, whose longstanding Democratic Party is expected to win a majority on its own.

Abhisit tells VOA he wants to break the vicious circle of corruption, military coups, and cronyism in Thai politics. And he says he wants to continue the good elements of the previous administration's policies, especially in regard to poverty alleviation and infrastructure development.

"We want to move the country forward," he said. "Whatever policies that Thaksin has implemented and have benefited the people, we have no problems with. We can continue with them, but without the corruption, without the abuse of power, without the violation of rights."

Thaksin's supporters say implementation of his policies are not enough and some are openly calling for his return.

Abhisit's most formidable opponent is former Bangkok governor, senator, and television cooking show host Samak Sundaravej, 72, of the People Power Party - viewed as a reincarnation of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party, which was dissolved by the military coup last year. Samak says that in his view, Thaksin deserves a political comeback.

"Somebody created hatred [toward] a good prime minister who did such good things for this country," he said. "I appreciate [being able] to grab his hand to bring him back [to] the limelight."

Analysts say the PPP is not able to muster a majority in the lower House of Representatives on its own, but may do so by forming a coalition after the elections. That grouping may call for the return and exoneration of the exiled Prime Minister, who faces corruption charges.

The prospect of Mr. Thaksin's return, in person or through political allies, is raising concerns about how the military will react.

Authorities tightened security across the kingdom in the hours ahead of Sunday's polling, with tens of thousands of police and soldiers deployed to prevent violence.

Thailand's military-appointed interim parliament on Friday approved an internal security law that critics say allows an army unit to impose curfews, arrest anyone who is deemed a threat to internal security, conduct searches, and censor communications. Opponents say they will work to get the law repealed after the elections.

The United States, which considers Thailand an important ally, was highly critical of last year's military coup. The White House on Friday said Washington eagerly awaits the return of democracy to Thailand so that it can resume close ties with the kingdom, some of which were curtailed after the coup.