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Thai Voters Defy Coup Leaders

Thai Voters Defy Coup Leaders


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Rebellious voters defied Thailand's 15-month- old military coup, and cast their ballots overwhelmingly for a politician who supports ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, despite the junta's tribunals which indicted Mr. Thaksin for alleged massive corruption.

By opposing the coup, this Buddhist-majority, U.S. ally in Southeast Asia has returned to the stark confrontational days of 2006 when Mr. Thaksin's impoverished, rural supporters challenged an authoritarian, urban elite and its military protectors.

Sunday's (Dec. 23) vote proved that the coup leaders failed in their impromptu, menacing effort to destroy Mr. Thaksin and his brand of tricky, monopolistic, usurping politics.

Mr. Thaksin's victorious, self-described "nominee" candidate, Samak Sundaravej, captured at least 228 seats in Sunday's (Dec. 23) nationwide election for parliament's 480 positions.

Mr. Samak spent Monday (Dec. 24) luring smaller parties to join his new People Power Party (PPP), amid hopes they could form a majority coalition with Mr. Samak as Thailand's new prime minister. The generals who led the bloodless coup on Sept. 19, 2006, remain in power.

But the fumbling junta is now counting its losses after 15 months of investigating, indicting, smearing and hounding Mr. Thaksin and his colleagues.

The coup leaders had boosted themselves in Thailand's pliant media as altruistic, nationalistic saviors, and insisted most Thais supported the hype.

Despite the embarrassing snub by voters, military leaders promised not to stage another coup, and pledged to permit some democracy by stepping down and allowing whoever won the election a chance to form a new government within 30 days.

But the junta's powerful Election Commission can change the number of winners when it rules on possible complaints of fraud and other poll violations.

According to a flexible schedule, the military is supposed relinquish power around February 7, after a new coalition government appears.

"Whether the current [junta] government will stay on after Feb. 7 depends on how many red [violation] cards, if any, the Election Commission decides to issue," the junta's Defense Minister, Gen. Boonrawd Somtas, said on Sunday (Dec. 23).

"Today, several complaints came in about election fraud. A party dissolution case alone takes roughly a month," Gen. Boonrawd warned. "Many voters have become cynical about politics in recent months, and some members of the media have indicated they believe the Election Commission, appointed by the military coup as they are, might attempt to sway the election through unfair disqualification of members of certain parties," said the English-language Bangkok Post's Monday (Dec. 24) editorial.

Many voters perceived a vote for Mr. Samak as a vote for Mr. Thaksin, and the two men publicly endorsed each other.

The two leaders pushed pro-poor policies of cheap health care and easy credit, which some economists said was unsustainable. Mr. Thaksin was a self-made billionaire telecommunications tycoon who ruled as prime minister for five years while hustling non-stop to amass more wealth and power.

Doing so, he also racked up allegations of tax dodging, payoffs, links to extrajudicial killings and other crimes which he always denied. In contrast, Mr. Samak, 72, possesses a murky, fearsome reputation as an "ultra right-wing" politician rooted in the 1970s and 1990s when he sided with the military against liberal students and other protestors, during street clashes which killed dozens of people.

His earthy rhetoric, street-wise demeanor, TV cooking show, and extensive connections to powerful figures in Thai society, make Mr. Samak a heavyweight in politics who can work with several factions, or challenge rivals.

Mr. Samak promised to invalidate a junta tribunal which barred 111 politicians from power for five years -- including Mr. Thaksin and members of his disbanded Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") party. As a result, Mr. Thaksin may return to Thailand soon, possibly on Feb. 14 to coyly coincide with Valentine's Day.

It was unclear, however, if the cases of alleged corruption and other crimes committed by Mr. Thaksin, his relatives and former colleagues, will proceed.

The junta's generals awarded themselves amnesty for all their actions, after overthrowing the government and shredding the constitution, but they appeared concerned of how they will be treated by a PPP-led government in 2008.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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