BANGKOK, Apr 2: Thais began voting today in a general election called early by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to rout a campaign to oust him but seen likely to plunge the country into a constitutional mess.
Facing an opposition boycott, Thaksin turned the poll into a referendum on his leadership by pledging to quit if his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party wins less than 50 percent of the ballots cast.
That is unlikely to happen as rural Thais, who have enjoyed village handouts and cheap healthcare during Thaksin's five years in office, look set to give him another thumping majority.
But the boycott means the result is almost sure to fall short of a constitutional requirement that all 500 parliamentary seats be filled before a new government can be formed.
''The poll will produce a protracted deadlock for months. The final outcome is far from certain,'' political scientist Somjai Phagaphasvivat told Reuters.
Polling stations opened at 8 am (0100) 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.
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.
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 the Thai leader, whom they accuse of corruption and abuse of power.
Thai Rak Thai candidates are running unopposed in 265 of 400 constituencies and as many as 50 could fail to win the minimum 20 percent of the vote they need to record victory in an uncontested seat, casting doubt on the validity of the overall result.
Thaksin, a 56-year-old telecoms billionaire, 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.
''I VOTE NOBODY'' But Thaksin faces an uphill battle in the 14 southern provinces where his party won only one seat in the 2005 poll that swept him back to power with 377 seats in the 500-seat parliament, the biggest majority in Thai history.
The opposition are vowing to make the region a ''Thai Rak Thai-free zone'' on Sunday and many voters seem to agree.
''I'm going to vote, but not for Thaksin. I vote nobody,'' said Jum Rutikan, a 26-year-old bartender on the tourist island of Phuket. ''We in the south don't like Thaksin. He's like mafia.'' Election officials are gearing up for by-elections in hopes of filling empty seats in parliament.
''It's very certain that we will hold by-elections because some constituencies have only one candidate and they are unlikely to get 20 percent,'' said EC Secretary General Ekachai Warunprapa.
Opinion polls suggest a heavy turnout in Bangkok, the scene of weeks of street protests demanding Thaksin quit.
Despite fears of violence, the protests have been peaceful and, with PAD declaring a weekend truce, police said they expected voting to go smoothly.
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.
At its peak, the PAD drew crowds of up to 130,000, but the campaign waned as Bangkokians grew weary of the disruptions to their normal life.
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.