Thailand to elect post-coup govt on Dec 23

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Bangkok, Dec 22: Thailand will choose a post-coup government tomorrow in an election, over which the shadows of the country's military rulers and the popular leaders they ousted 15 months ago loom large.

Independent political observers do not expect the December 23 parliament elections, being held under a new constitution drafted by a military regime-nominated panel, to lead to political stability. More than 45 million of the country's over 60 million people are eligible to vote to set up a 480-member lower house of Parliament. Opinion polls show the People's Power Party (PPP), backed by coup-ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is leading.

Its main challenger is Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest political party which is said to have approval of the coup leaders. Led by firebrand septuagenarian politician Samak Sundaravej, once known for his strong right wing views, the PPP comprises supporters of Thaksin and is espousing the populist policies that gave former prime minister three successive terms in office.

The party announced at a rally here yesterday that Thaksin, who has been living in self-exile in England since after the coup, would return to the country in mid-February next year, if it wins.

The Democrat Party's youthful, Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, still shaking off a political greenhorn image, is campaigning on a platform targeting the alleged corruption and cronyism characterising Thaksin's governments and which was cited as a rationale for the September 19, 2006 coup d'etat.

The Democrat Party is also offering voters a package of populist policies to counter the PPP's appeal. Poll watchdogs and the PPP have alleged that the military regime is working to sabotage the PPP's chances by using the army and state machinery to persuade people not to vote for the party.

Nearly half of the country's 76 provinces remain under martial law despite calls by international and domestic rights groups and independent poll monitors to end all restrictions on civil liberties.

The PPP has also been slapped with serious poll law violation charges which could lead to its dissolution. Coup leader and former army chief Sonthi Boonyaratakalin, however, said yesterday that he would accept the election outcome even if the PPP wins.

The projected post-poll scenarios include a Abhisit-led minority Democrat government backed by a clutch of smaller parties among which the Chart Thai, led by former prime minister Banharn Silpa-archa, is seen as the most crucial.

Banharn has emerged as a kingmaker over a decade of coalition politics in Thailand. Both the PPP and Democrats are trying hard to win him over, but the wily leader has declined to commit himself until the election results are known.

UNI

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