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Virtual win for ousted Thai leader

The party supporting deposed Prime Minister Thaksin claims victory. Some fear the military will intervene.

December 24, 2007|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, THAILAND — The party that campaigned as a surrogate for deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra claimed victory in Thailand's first post-coup election Sunday but fell short of an outright majority in parliament, according to initial results.

Declaring that "the coup is dead," People Power Party leader Samak Sundaravej, 72, told a news conference, "I will be the next premier for sure."

With more than 93% of the ballots counted, the pro-Thaksin party had won 228 seats in the 480-seat parliament, said the country's election commission, which added that results were not expected to change significantly as the final votes were tallied.

The rival Democrat Party had 166 seats, a severe blow to its backers in the junta.

Exit polls suggested that if Samak, a former Bangkok governor, didn't get the majority of seats he needed to form a government, his party would be in a position to form a ruling coalition with smaller parties.

The military has vowed to respect the election result, which is likely to be challenged because poll observers have reported widespread vote-buying and other irregularities common to Thai politics.

Many Thais fear the military will intervene with another coup to prevent a Thaksin comeback.

The military overthrew Thaksin in September 2006 while he was in New York for the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations. He now lives in exile in London, and several corruption charges are pending against him in Thailand.

At a campaign-closing rally Friday, a party leader told thousands of supporters that Thaksin would return to Thailand on Valentine's Day if the party won more than half of the assembly seats and could form a government.

Thaksin was banned from politics along with his Thai Rak Thai, or Thais Love Thais, party after the bloodless coup. But Samak took up the fight to restore Thaksin to power, drawing strong support from rural voters who form the ousted leader's power base.

On Friday, the White House said in a statement that the U.S. "eagerly awaits the return of democracy to Thailand so that we may resume our close and abiding relationship with this important ally."

The Thai opposition has accused the military junta of mismanaging the economy, bungling efforts to end a Muslim insurgency in the south and making other policy mistakes.

Samak told voters that corruption was a common problem in any government, including those in which the pro-military Democrat Party had participated as a coalition partner.

During the campaign, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva warned voters not to "choose a prime minister who has already announced he is representing someone else," a veiled reference to the Thaksin-allied Samak.

"A prime minister who is not real can damage the nation and will never take responsibility," Abhisit told a rally Friday.

Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, was one of the country's wealthiest people before he entered politics in the early 1990s. He later founded the populist Thai Rak Thai, and became prime minister in 2001 after a landslide election victory.

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paul.watson@latimes.com

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