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Surprise 'no' vote rattles Thai PM Shinawatra

Written by: Staff
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Bangkok, Apr 3: Thais gave Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra a major slap in the face today with a strong protest ''no vote'' in a snap election intended to scotch an anti-corruption street campaign to kick him out.

Telecoms billionaire Thaksin appeared to acknowledge the election he called three years early had failed to resolve months of political turmoil, saying he was open to all options.

''If the media give me an option that could reconcile all sides, I don't necessarily need to be the prime minister. But this doesn't mean that I will continue to be or I won't be the prime minister,'' he told reporters.

An opposition boycott of yesterday's poll, billed by Thaksin as a referendum on his leadership, had already guaranteed constitutional chaos because of the inevitability of empty seats in parliament, which must be full for a government to be formed.

Unlike a general election in February 2005, the Election Commission (EC) only released its first results well into the morning after the poll -- four constituencies in Bangkok showing the ''no vote'' victorious in three.

A year ago, Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party won 32 of the 37 seats in the capital.

Thaksin, who promised to quit if ''no votes'' outnumbered TRT votes, expected to pick up support as results trickled from his rural strongholds in the north and northeast.

''I believe my supporting votes will be more than half although in the past there was no prime minister who would have more than half of the votes,'' he said.

However, some analysts said it might be a close run thing.

''If it's half of votes cast, it's going to be real touch-and-go,'' said Thaksin biographer Chris Baker, who had collated partial results in the absence of any official tally from either the Election Commission or television stations.

Official results later

In the Muslim-majority far south, where Thaksin is blamed for a resurgence of separatist unrest, election officials had to suspend counting in one constituency after the ''no vote'' tally filled up all the space on their counting forms.

''I'm pretty confident that people here will not chose Thaksin. He has never been interested in their problems and the people are very aware of that,'' out-going Pattani MP Anwar Salae of the opposition Democrats, who led the boycott, told Reuters.

Nearly 70 per cent of the 399 seats at stake across the country were uncontested and some will be left empty as TRT candidates struggle to win the minimum 20 per cent of eligible votes needed to secure victory in unopposed seats.

The early ''no vote'' trend sparked fresh speculation Thaksin would hand over to a deputy to defuse political tension, manage political reform, and then make a comeback.

He responded: ''Haven't thought about that''.

Final results were expected only late today, with the Election Commission reporting slow counting upcountry, where Thaksin draws his main support due mainly to the provision of cheap healthcare and credit to farmers.

The crisis has taken its toll on the economy, paralysing business decision-making and sapping the stock market, Southeast Asia's second-worst performer this year after Malaysia.

Bangkok's bourse dropped slightly in morning trade and the baht inched lower as the lack of a clear resolution emerged and Thaksin hinted his patience might snap if street protesters failed to accept the results.

''It's time to bring law and order,'' he told reporters after voting with his children, whose tax-free 1.9 billion dollar sale of the telecoms empire he founded galvanised the street campaign in January.

Analysts say a post-election break before street protests resume on Friday could provide a cooling-off period for talks between Thaksin and his opponents, an ad hoc coalition called the People's Alliance for Democracy.

Some voters in Bangkok disagreed. ''Most people don't trust elections any more,'' said businessman Ponganan Limprajikul, 32.

''I think there will be more protests. More people will come out to join the protests and they could become more emotional.''

Reuters

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