Upset reactions to Thai elections

By Rungrawee C. Pinyorat The Associated Press

BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand’s prime minister claimed victory yesterday but acknowledged a strong protest vote in an election held after weeks of demonstrations demanding his resignation for alleged corruption and abuse of power.

Thaksin Shinawatra offered to set up a committee to judge whether he should step down despite receiving 57 percent of votes cast Sunday. But critics rejected the idea as insincere and called for new anti-government protests this week.

“The prime minister just wants to find ways to stay in power by finding new marketing strategies and new products,” opposition Democrat Party spokesman Ong-Art Klampaiboon said, an apparent reference to Thaksin’s background as a tycoon who made his fortune in telecommunications.

With the opposition criticism, and likely legal tangles over technicalities of the balloting, Thailand looked destined to remain enmeshed in a crisis that has shaken its political stability.

For more than two months, Thaksin’s opponents have been holding growing demonstrations, drawing as many as 100,000 people in their attempt to pressure Thaksin into leaving office.

Thaksin called Sunday’s snap election with the intention of disarming his critics with a fresh mandate from voters who last year awarded his Thai Rak Thai – Thai Love Thai – party 377 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives.

The three parliamentary opposition parties boycotted the election and called on voters to show their disapproval of Thaksin by ticking the box on their ballots signifying an abstention.

According to incomplete returns, Thaksin got his victory, but significant numbers of people cast votes of abstention.

With neither side scoring a knockout blow, the political divide may not be easily resolved.

Speaking yesterday night on a television talk show, Thaksin said initial results showed his party received 16 million votes, enough for a victory but down from 19 million votes for his party last year.

The Election Commission was expected to release complete election returns yesterday.

In Bangkok, the center of the campaign to force Thaksin from office, the number of abstentions outnumbered votes for his party in most districts.

The opposition call for abstentions also fared well in the south, historically a Democrat Party stronghold, while support for Thaksin was strong in the north and northeast, where rural voters appreciate his generous social welfare and economic assistance programs.

Anti-Thaksin activists prepared to pick up where they left off before the election, scheduling demonstrations Wednesday in the southern province of Songkhla and Friday in Bangkok.

Recognizing that the election would not end the demands for him to step down, Thaksin offered to set up a neutral “reconciliation” body comprising three former prime ministers, three former supreme court chiefs and three former heads of Parliament to judge whether he should resign.

“I want to set up an independent committee to bring together all those with different opinions to find a way forward. If that committee tells me to quit, then I will quit,” he said.

Thaksin’s foes dismissed his offer.

“He changes every day, from national government to reconciliation committee. We can’t pay attention to someone who has no credibility,” scoffed Democrat spokesman Ong-art.

Thaksin also offered before the voting to include his leading critics in a postelection national unity government, an offer they rejected.

A spokesman for the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which has been leading the street protests, said the Thai leader “has little credibility because he has twisted his words several times.”

“We still insist that Thaksin step down and allow political reforms to take place,” Somsak Kosaisook said.

Running unopposed in many constituencies and with token opposition in others, Thaksin’s party was virtually certain to have no opposition in Parliament.

But minimum turnout requirements meant that no winners could be declared in at least 39 constituencies, forcing new rounds of local voting. Many legal experts believe that unless all 500 House seats are filled, Parliament cannot be convened, blocking formation of a new government.

Many of Thaksin’s opponents hope that in such a case. The 78-year-old monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, would intervene to replace Thaksin.

Financial market analysts, worried that extended political instability could hurt Thailand’s economy, expressed concern about the ongoing tensions.