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Last Updated: Friday, 31 March 2006, 00:02 GMT 01:02 UK
Thai poll may give little resolution
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Bangkok

Thaksin Shinawatra on the campaign trail
Mr Thaksin has hit the campaign trail, but there is little opposition
In theory, the wait should almost be over for Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

On Sunday, his decision to hold snap elections in an attempt to quell the mounting criticism against him will be put to the test, when the country goes to the polls three years earlier than planned.

"I will accept whatever the people's decision is," said Mr Thaksin when he announced the 2 April poll.

But the people don't really have much of a decision to make. For most of them, the choice is either the ruling Thai Rak Thai party or nothing at all - because the main opposition parties have boycotted the poll, leaving many constituencies with only one candidate.

That Mr Thaksin will win is not really in doubt - the uncertainty surrounds how much of an endorsement he is given, and whether this is either big enough to silence his critics or small enough to make him step down.

But as the elections get closer, neither the anti-Thaksin demonstrators who are holding regular rallies calling for his resignation, nor his ardent supporters in rural areas, seem ready to back down.

SIMPLE CHOICE
Thailand's voters on whether they will back the PM

In fact there is an increasing realisation that the poll may not actually do much to solve this political crisis at all.

"An election usually determines the future of a country, but no one's sure whether this election will decide anything," said Chaiwat Khamchoo, a political science lecturer at Chulalungkorn University.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the head of the opposition Democrats - the largest party boycotting the poll - is even more damning, saying that the only certain outcome of the poll is that it will show there are "still many problems ahead".

One of the main reasons for this is that analysts are increasingly worried the election may end up producing a power vacuum.

In many constituencies, there is only one candidate - representing Thai Rak Thai - and in some areas this candidate is unlikely to achieve the 20% of the vote necessary to be accepted as the legitimate MP.

Under the Thai constitution, all 500 parliamentary seats must be filled for the lower house to convene, and there is no precedent for what happens if this does not take place.

No end in sight

But perhaps the main problem is that, regardless of the result itself, neither the pro- nor the anti-Thaksin camps are likely to go away when the voting is over.

Nongnuj Liamthongdee
I will carry on protesting whatever happens
Nongnuj Liamthongdee
Thailand is polarised as it never has been before. Broadly speaking, the public divides between the urban middle class - who do not trust Mr Thaksin and accuse him of corruption and authoritarianism - and the rural poor, who fete him as a hero.

For months now, the anti-Thaksin protesters have been holding regular demonstrations accusing the prime minister and his allies of abusing their power, particularly over the controversial $1.9bn (1.1bn) sale of Mr Thaksin's family firm, Shin Corp.

The protesters have already pledged to continue gathering for rallies after the poll.

"I will carry on protesting whatever happens in the elections," said Nongnuj Liamthongdee, a participant at Wednesday's mass rally in Bangkok's central shopping district.

"I've been going to the rallies for almost two months now, and I'm prepared to keep doing it for a long time to come, until Thaksin resigns."

Political analyst Pasuk Pongpaichitr said she was not surprised by the strength of the demonstrators' feelings against Mr Thaksin.

"The core of this group is the educated generation of people who fought to establish parliamentary democracy in the last 30 years in the face of military dictatorships," she said.

"They believe Mr Thaksin has destroyed what they've tried to establish."

'Best leader'

But on the other side of Bangkok, the mood is very different. The so-called Caravan of the Poor, a group of farmers and villagers from the north and north-east, has travelled to the capital to support the prime minister, whom they say is the best leader in Thailand's history.

Somarj Kuljidd travelled by foot from his farm in Burirum province - a journey that took him 17 days.

Somarj Kuljuidd and his family at the campsite for the Caravan of the Poor
Many farmers are camping in Bangkok in support of Mr Thaksin
"I want to tell Thaksin that he needs to stay in power, and continue what he's doing," he explained. "I have never seen anyone who has helped the poor so much."

Several government schemes, such as universal healthcare for 30 Baht ($0.80) and a system of low-interest loans for villages and scholarships for rural students, have ensured that Mr Thaksin is virtually assured of a high level of support in the countryside.

"I like the 30 Baht health scheme, and I've borrowed money from our village fund to invest in more cows for my farm," said Mr Kuljidd.

For those with ardent views on this crisis, like Nongnuj Liamthongdee and Somarj Kuljidd, Sunday's election is unlikely to be the end of the road.

One thing, though, remains clear. When Thai voters go the polls on Sunday, it will be for an election like none other in their history.

"Hopefully this poll will resolve at least some of the issues here," said Chaiwat Khamchoo. "But at the moment, you just have to take everything day by day."




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