April 02, 2006

Thai poll marked by strong protest abstentions

by Darren Schuettler
Voters in Bangkok and southern Thailand appeared on Monday to have given Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra a slap in the face with a strong protest "No vote" in an election unlikely to end a protracted political crisis.

An opposition boycott of Sunday's poll -- billed by Thaksin as a referendum on his leadership -- had already guaranteed constitutional chaos because of the inevitability of empty seats in parliament, which must be full for a government to be formed.

But Thaksin was even further undercut in Bangkok, the scene of weeks of anti-corruption street protests, where Thai media said voters flocked to abstain by ticking the "No vote" box on ballot papers.

Thai media said that with at least half the votes counted, the "No vote" was in a clear majority in Bangkok, where the billionaire prime minister's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party won 32 of the 37 seats in a general election last year.

In the Muslim-majority far south, where Thaksin is blamed for a resurgence of separatist unrest, election officials had to suspend vote counting in one constituency after the "No vote" tally filled up all the space on their counting forms.

"I'm pretty confident that people here will not chose Thaksin. He has never been interested in their problems and the people are very aware of that," out-going Pattani MP Anwar Salae of the opposition Democrat Party, which led the boycott, told Reuters.

Nearly 70 percent of the 399 seats at stake across the country were uncontested and some will be left empty as Thai Rak Thai candidates struggle to win the minimum 20 percent of eligible votes needed to secure victory in unopposed seats.

Even though Thaksin has shown no signs of stepping down, the "No vote" trend sparked fresh speculation he would hand over to a deputy to defuse political tension, manage political reform, and then make a comeback.

"The number of abstentions is higher than expected, which may force Thaksin to be absent from a new government," said Pongpan Apinyakul, a senior analyst at Kim Eng Securities.


Final results were expected only late on Monday, with counting going slow outside Bangkok where Thaksin draws his main support, the Election Commission said.

The rural masses have received cheap health care and credit during his five years in office and early returns showed them handing him another big majority.

So strong is their support that Thaksin was unlikely to have to follow through on his promise to quit if the TRT got less than 50 percent of the vote, a pledge made as he tried to face down campaigners accusing him of corruption, cronyism and abuse of power.

However, even before the first votes were cast, the election had set Thailand on a clear course to a constitutional mess.

In one Bangkok seat, the unopposed Thai Rak Thai runner was disqualified at the last minute, leaving no candidate on the ballot and guaranteeing at least one empty space in the 500-seat parliament.


The crisis has taken its toll on the economy, paralyzing business decision-making and sapping the stock market, Southeast Asia's second-worst performer this year after Malaysia.

The baht inched lower on Monday as the lack of a clear win emerged and Thaksin hinted his patience might snap if street protesters failed to accept the results.

"It's time to bring law and order," he told reporters after voting with his children, whose tax-free $1.9 billion sale of the telecoms empire he founded galvanized the street campaign in January.

Analysts say a post-election break before street protests resume on Friday could provide a cooling-off period for talks between Thaksin and his opponents, an ad hoc coalition called the People's Alliance for Democracy.

Some voters in Bangkok disagreed. "Most people don't trust elections any more," said businessman Ponganan Limprajikul, 32. "I think there will be more protests. More people will come out to join the protests and they could become more emotional."

Sunday's voting was largely peaceful, although bombs wounded four security men after polls closed in the far south, where more than 1,100 people have been killed in two years of separatist violence.


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