Thai by-elections test ex-PM's influence
By AMBIKA AHUJA,Associated Press Writer AP - 1 hour 6 minutes ago
BANGKOK, Thailand - Thais voted Sunday in Parliamentary by-elections that could reveal whether opponents of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have finally broken his grip on political power in the country's north and northeast.
The polls are the first since Thaksin's political allies were ousted from power in December by a court ruling and Parliamentary maneuvering and replaced by a coalition led by the rival Democrat Party.
Polls closed at 3 p.m., but preliminary official results were expected sometime Sunday night at the earliest. Early incomplete tallies suggested the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and its allies would capture as many as 19 of the 29 parliamentary seats at stake.
Parliament elected Democrat Party leader Abhisit as the nation's leader by a thin majority last month. His ascendance to form a shaky coalition government followed the dissolution of three parties in the previous governing coalition of Thaksin allies after a court ruled some of their members had committed election fraud.
Voters in 22 provinces cast ballots Sunday to fill the 29 seats made vacant mostly by politicians disqualified by the court ruling.
The dissolved parties had been packed with allies of Thaksin, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. He is in exile, defying a court conviction on a conflict of interest charge.
Thaksin twice led his party to impressive election victories and he retains popularity among the country's rural majority. His loyalists contested most of Sunday's races under the banner of the newly formed Phuea Thai Party.
The newspaper The Nation, a leading voice against Thaksin and his legacy, suggested before the vote that the polls were "likely to show that the Phuea Thai Party no longer has an invincible and exclusive influence over the Northeast in spite of its attempt to hang on to the coattails" of Thaksin.
Abhisit's Democrats were able to take advantage of months of political chaos caused by protesters opposed to Thaksin's political machine. Their sometimes violent demonstrations culminated in an eight-day blockade of Bangkok's airports in November that made it difficult for Thaksin's allies to govern with any credibility.
Abhisit's government was voted in with a majority of 37 votes, with the support of 235 lawmakers in the 480-seat lower house of Parliament. The Democrats prevailed by luring to their side politicians who had formerly been allied with the pro-Thaksin coalition government.
"The (current) coalition is likely to retain its majority but the Democrat Party will have to rely more on small parties and factions whose allegiances are fickle," Sukhum Nuansakul, a political scientist at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University, said before the vote.
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