BANGKOK, Apr 2: Thais voted today in a general election that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called three years early to counter a protracted street campaign by anti-corruption protesters to kick him out.
But the move looks likely to plunge the country into a constitutional mess due to an opposition boycott that has already guaranteed empty chairs in the 500-seat parliament, which must be filled for a new government to be formed.
In one north Bangkok constituency, there were no candidates on the ballot following last-minute disqualification of the unopposed candidate of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party.
In many constituencies in the largely Muslim far south, where telecoms billionaire Thaksin is deeply unpopular, TRT hopefuls were also likely to fall short of the 20 per cent threshold of eligible votes that unopposed candidates need for victory.
The opposition and the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), an ad-hoc group bent on forcing Thaksin out, are urging voters to tick the ''abstention'' box on ballot papers as a vote against a leader they accuse of corruption and abuse of power.
''The poll will produce a protracted deadlock for months. The final outcome is far from certain,'' political scientist Somjai Phagaphasvivat told Reuters.
Nevertheless, Thaksin, who has turned the vote into a referendum on his leadership by pledging to quit if he wins less than 50 per cent of ballots cast, looks set for another thumping majority thanks to unwavering support from the rural masses.
Upcountry Thais, 70 percent of the country's 63 million people, turned out early and in numbers to vote for a prime minister who has given them cheap healthcare and credit during his five years in office.
Polling stations opened at 8 am local time and were due to close at 3 pm. Preliminary results from the Election Commission (EC) were expected to trickle in throughout the night, with a final tally likely on Monday morning.
ECONOMY SUFFERING Thai Rak Thai, which won 377 seats out of 500 in February 2005 -- the largest majority in the country's history -- is running unopposed in 265 of 400 constituencies, but analysts say as many as 50 could fail to secure a victory.
The crisis is already taking its toll on the economy, paralysing decision-making in business and sapping the Thai stock market, Southeast Asia's second worst performing bourse after Malaysia this year.
Thaksin has urged his opponents to accept the results of the poll, which is open to around 45 million Thais.
''After the election, everyone should join hands. It's just like a sport. When a referee blows a whistle, we have to shake hands after the competition ends,'' he said after hitting golf balls at a driving range on Saturday.
But in the far south, he is blamed for a resurgence in the last two years of Muslism separatist violence in which more than 1,000 people have been killed .
Police detonated a small bomb left outside one polling station in the region, which the opposition have vowed to turn into a ''Thai Rak Thai-free zone''.
''I'm not going to vote,'' said Khru, a bureaucrat in Pattani, a provincial capital. ''This is a dirty election and I will not waste my pure vote in a dirty process.'' TRT also looks set to struggle in tourist hotspots such as Phuket.
''I'm going to vote, but not for Thaksin. I vote nobody,'' said Jum Rutikan, a 26-year-old bartender on the tourist island. ''We in the south don't like Thaksin. He's like mafia.'' The anti-Thaksin campaign intensified in late January after his relatives sold a controlling stake in the telecommunications empire he founded for a tax-free $1.9 billion.
With PAD vowing more protests after the poll, what happens next will depend on whether the vote is ''reasonably clean, proper and transparent'', said Supavud Saicheua of Phatra Securities.
''If the opposite happens, then you could have a lot of disorder on the streets, and that's where the risk for Thailand and the economy as a whole is going to be,'' he said.