Thais go to polls, but uncertainty reigns

Panel likely to disqualify many winners, set runoff


BANGKOK, Thailand - Thailand voted yesterday in an election that was expected to produce not only a new parliament but also several weeks or months of political and constitutional uncertainty.

Dozens of winners in the 500-seat parliament were expected to be disqualified by an aggressive new election commission for vote buying and other irregularities, leading to one or more runoff elections.

And the candidate who appeared headed for victory as prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, 51, is under indictment by a counter-corruption commission and could be removed from office if he fails in an appeal to the Constitutional Court.

The ruling Democrat Party conceded defeat as exit polls showed Thaksin's party, Thai Rak Thai, surging toward a huge plurality that would form the basis for a coalition government.

The focus now may be less on new policies than on Thailand's struggle, under a new constitution, to seat a government that is somewhat less corrupt than in the past.

The resulting period of uncertainty has led to fears of political instability and economic stagnation in a nation staggering to its feet after the economic crisis of 1997.

The incumbent prime minister, Chuan Leekpai, 62, came to office in the midst of the crisis, in November 1997, when the economy was contracting by 10 percent a year, nearly 2 million people were losing their jobs and the International Monetary Fund was administering a $17 billion rescue package.

Chuan and his Democrat Party have stabilized the economy and restored modest growth of about 5 percent a year, but the steps they have taken, mostly following the formulas of the IMF, have caused widespread pain and have done little to ease the poverty of Thailand's rural majority.

The government's three-year tenure has been long by Thai standards, and its low-key style and seeming unresponsiveness to public demands and protests have led to a groundswell for change.

Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon who became one of Thailand's richest men during the decade-long boom that preceded the crash, formed his party two years ago, lured several leading political figures to join him and began a highly polished campaign. He has wooed voters with a promise to give 1 million baht ($23,000) to every one of Thailand's 70,000 villages.

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