BANGKOK, Apr 2 (Reuters) 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 looked likely to plunge the country into constitutional chaos 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 Bangkok seat, there was no candidate on the ballot -- the unopposed member of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) (Thais Love Thais) party having been disqualified at the last minute.
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 unrivalled 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 turned the vote into a referendum on his leadership by pledging to quit if he won less than 50 per cent of ballots cast, looked set for another thumping majority thanks to unwavering support in the countryside.
Rural Thais -- 70 per cent of the country's 63 million people -- turned out in force to vote for a prime minister who has given them cheap healthcare and credit during his five years in office.
Voting ended at 1330 hrs ist and preliminary results from the Election Commission (EC) were expected to trickle in throughout the night, with a final tally out by early Monday. TRT officials said Thaksin would hold a news conference at 7 p.m.
at party headquarters.
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 276 constituencies, but analysts say as many as 50 of them could fail to secure a victory. The crisis is taking its toll on the economy, paralysing decision-making in business and sapping the Thai stock market, Southeast Asia's second worst performer after Malaysia this year.
After saying yesterday that both sides should ''shake hands after the competition ends'', Thaksin hinted that his patience might not last if the PAD failed to acknowledge the results of the poll, which is open to 45 million Thais.
''It's time to bring law and order,'' he said in answer to a question from reporters as he drove away in a black Mercedes from a polling station with his children, whose tax-free $1.9 billion sale of the telecoms empire he founded galvanised the opposition movement.
In the far south, where he is blamed for a resurgence of Muslim separatist unrest in which more than 1,000 people have died, police detonated a small bomb left at a polling station.
An opposition campaign to turn the region into a ''Thai Rak Thai-free zone'' appeared to be having an impact, with one TRT candidate in Yala province failing to put his full name or the name of his party on his campaign posters.
''I'm not going to vote,'' said Khru, a bureaucrat in Pattani, a southern provincial capital. ''This is a dirty election and I will not waste my pure vote in a dirty process.'' Tempers were no less heated in the capital, where a political scientist at Bangkok's top university, Chulalongkorn, was arrested for ripping up his ballot paper, a gesture aimed at what he said was the ''illegitimate Thaksin regime''.
Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, who was released on bail, could be sent to jail for a year.
With the PAD vowing protests after the poll, what happens next depends 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.
The Election Commission said by-elections in unfilled seats could be held as early as next Sunday and as late as April 30.