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Thai election reruns end with attacks, protests

Written by: Staff
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PATTANI, Thailand, Apr 23 (Reuters) Thais voted in election reruns today marred by militant attacks in the restive Muslim south and protests against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's ruling party.

Preliminary results of the 40 polls, mostly in southern strongholds of the Democrat Party that led two other opposition parties to boycott April 2 general elections, are expected after 1500 GMT today, local election officials said.

A top election official in Bankgok said the polls, which drew far less than the 60 percent turnout of two previous rounds of voting this month, could leave up to 10 parliamentary seats empty.

That could force more reruns next weekend, scotching any hope of a quick end to a constitutional crisis that has forced Thaksin to cede day-to-day power.

Fear and fatigue loomed large in the Malay-speaking south where a two-year separatist insurgency has killed more than 1,100, despite declarations from the Buddhist-dominated government in Bangkok that it is winning against the militants.

The violence persisted today despite heavy security in the Muslim-dominated provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani that are home to most of Thailand's 6 million Muslims.

Before voting began, unknown gunmen killed one man and wounded a woman near a polling station in Narathiwat. The night before, militants blew up a bus shelter in Yala and clashed with security forces, shooting a policeman in the head.

Last week five people were killed and 30 wounded in the region during elections for the upper house Senate.

''No matter how many elections or by-elections we have, violence never ends in the south,'' Saringkan Chuwongwuth, 66, said after voting in Yala.

POLL PROTESTS Police and soldiers armed with rifles patrolled the lush, rubber-producing region in trucks, armoured vehicles and on motorcycles after intelligence reports warned of more unrest.

Some election volunteers feared the heavy security would only draw attacks from militants targeting police and soldiers.

''You have a 50-50 chance of surviving a militant attack when you travel alone, but your risk is greater with an escort from police or troops,'' said Ning, a village chief in Narathiwat.

Even if violence did not disrupt voting, a solution to the constitutional deadlock is not imminent.

Around half the 40 seats at stake are contested only by Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) (TRT) party, but a candidate has to get 20 per cent of the eligible vote to win in a region where the government is very unpopular.

Unless all its seats are filled, parliament cannot convene, no new prime minister can be elected to replace Thaksin and no new government can be formed. Thaksin has handed over day-to-day power to Chidchai and says he will not seek the job anew.

Election Commission secretary-general Ekachai Warunprapa said 10 southern constituencies may require another round of voting next weekend before the May 2 constitutional deadline for parliament to meet within 30 days of a general election.

But some analysts say they cannot see unopposed TRT candidates mustering the required number of votes no matter how many reruns are held in the Muslim south where Thaksin's government is accused of failing to tackle separatist violence.

Thaksin's unpopularity had prompted some TRT candidates to avoid using the party logo during campaigning.

Election officials said turnout was under 50 per cent in some constituencies. At least eight angry voters tore up their ballots in protest and could face one year in jail and/or a fine.

Ekachai said seven polling stations in one constituency in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat failed to open because officials did not show up. They would be re-run tomorrow.

REUTERS SRS PM1526

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