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Thailand Holds Senate Elections

Voters in Thailand went to the polls Sunday for elections for half the upper house, the Senate, marking the final step in the return to parliamentary democracy after the nation's September 2006 coup d' etat. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, the elections come amid underlying tensions following the return to Thailand this week of former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thailand's 76 provinces elected one senator to the new 150 member Senate upper house Sunday marking a key step to the return of democracy and an elected parliament. But soon after Thailand's polls closed for the Senate vote, election commission officials warned of a low voter turnout in the capital, Bangkok, amid signs of political apathy to the election.

Under the vote, the 150 member Senate comprises both elected and appointed senators - a move brought into place under a new constitution passed by referendum during the military appointed government following the September 2006 coup.

The appointed members include retired soldiers and police and lawmakers from the previous legislature, as well as minority groups. The previous Senate under the 1997 constitution comprised entirely of elected members. But analysts have argued the previous Senate failed to adequately act as a check and balance in the parliament.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist from Chulalongorn University, says Sunday's elections marked a welcome step in the return to parliamentary politics in Thailand.

"At the moment the feeling is very good that democracy returns to town and the system is beginning to work gradually back to normalcy," said Panitan Wattanayagorn.

The poll Sunday came a little over two months after House of Representative general elections saw the return to power of supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He returned from political exile this week with some fanfare, since his ouster in September 2006.

But now a government under the Thaksin-backed Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, now leads a six party coalition government. Mr. Samak has said he will press for constitutional reforms to return the Senate as a fully elected house.

Mr. Thaksin, who along with 110 members of his former Thai Rak Thai Party, is banned from politics for five years after being found guilty of political fraud during elections in April 2006, has initially returned to face corruption charges raised during his term in office.

The new senate, once it takes up office, has a mandate to appoint ombudsmen and judges, to screen laws, investigate government policies and impeach ministers if the Counter Corruption Commission raises cases of corruption.