A year after coup, Thai election campaign begins

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BANGKOK, Nov 7 (Reuters) More than a year after a bloodless coup, Thailand began a campaign for a December general election to return the country to civilian rule under an army-designed constitution likely to produce a weak coalition government.

Candidate registration started today with a third of Thailand still under martial law imposed since the September 2006 ouster of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, winner of two landslide election victories.

With 18 parties in the race for 480 seats in the House of Representatives, none is likely to win an absolute majority and a short-lived coalition government is inevitable, analysts say.

''Like in the 80s and 90s, we are going to have an unstable coalition government fighting for their own party interests and it may last up to two years maximum,'' said Naruemon Thabchumpon, a political lecturer at Chulanongkorn University.

After the coup, which the military said was provoked by corruption in Thaksin's single-party government, Thaksin's juggernaut Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party was disbanded and he and 110 others barred from politics for five years for electoral fraud.

Supporters of Thaksin, who lives in exile in London and says he will return to fight corruption charges once the military-appointed government is gone, took over the People Power Party and his popularity in the countryside.

But the People Power's path to victory will be obstructed by the army's determination to prevent Thaksin wielding power from behind the scenes, analysts said.

''This is a race between Thaksin and anti-Thaksin,'' Thammasat University political professor Somjai Phagapasvivat said. ''You have the People Power versus an alliance of the army, two former opposition parties and some new medium-sized parties.'' The election campaign, to be dominated by promises of populist policies similar to Thaksin's, such as free schooling and health care, began with party leaders arriving at Bangkok's poll registration centre.

They got their early, hoping to be given an easy-to-remember single digit number to identify their party on the ballot paper in what is meant to be a first-come-first-served allotment.

But everyone showed up together, forcing a lottery in which People's Power was allocated 12. The Democrats, the main opposition party when Thaksin was in power, drew 4.

Despite tougher laws to curb poll fraud, analysts estimate politicians will spend up to 20 billion baht (600 million dollar) to buy votes, fomenting a spate of accusations, investigations and counter-charges.

''It is going to be a very messy campaign,'' said law lecturer Prinya Thaewanarumitkul of Thammasat University.

REUTERS RC RN1020

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