Thai "stealth coup" threatens pro-Thaksin victory

BANGKOK Fri Jan 4, 2008 4:53am EST

1 of 2. A man looks at pictures of members of parliament at Parliament in Bangkok January 4, 2008. Eighty-three winners in Thailand's December 23 poll, mostly from a party backing ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are still being probed for possible poll fraud and could be disqualified, the Election Commission said on Thursday.

Credit: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Fears of a post-election dirty tricks campaign by Thailand's old guard appear to be coming true.

Having come within a whisker of an outright majority in December's poll, the party backing ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is facing an unusually high number of fraud complaints against its winning candidates, analysts said on Friday.

The Supreme Court has also agreed to hear three cases that could lead to the pro-Thaksin People Power Party (PPP) being disbanded, or some or all of the poll results being annulled.

Of 83 candidates being investigated by the Election Commission (EC), whose five members were appointed by the army after the September 2006 coup, 65 are from the PPP.

Although there is no indication how many will end up disqualified, or "red-carded" as soccer-mad Thais like to call it, the high proportion of accepted complaints against the PPP and the EC's distinct lack of openness has raised eyebrows.

"The idea of 65 suspicious cases against PPP seems odd," said Kevin Hewison, a Thai politics researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"To change the course of the election you need between 20 and 30 red cards and that seems highly likely at this stage. They may well overturn the result."

With so much at stake in the election, analysts thought it inevitable that the army and royalist establishment accused of inspiring the coup would pull out all the stops to ensure a pro-Thaksin administration did not emerge.

However, when the PPP beat most projections to win 233 of the 480 seats in parliament, it appeared at first that the generals had yielded and accepted the result, even though they know they are in trouble if Thaksin or his proxies get in to power.

"COUP BY STEALTH"

Perhaps fearful of riling the EC, a PPP spokesman said he was not unduly concerned by the probes and hoped the party's candidates would be able to clear themselves.

However, firebrand party chief Samak Sundaravej has accused a "dirty invisible hand" of meddling in the post-election process, widely interpreted as a reference to chief royal adviser Prem Tinsulanonda, who Thaksin supporters say organized the coup.

In the first sign of public anger, 30,000 people in Buriram, a Thaksin stronghold in the northeast, rallied in front of the provincial EC offices to complain about the disqualification of three PPP candidates last week, police said.

Election commissioner Prapan Naikowit denied any bias, saying the higher number of complaints against the PPP was merely a reflection of it having the most winning candidates.

"We are not discriminating. The EC's investigations are fairly based on fact and evidence," he told reporters in Bangkok.

The machinations alleged by Samak, if true, are indicative of a Bangkok elite unable to accept the voice of an electorate still predominantly rural and poorly educated despite two decades of rapid economic growth, analysts said.

"It is to some extent a coup by stealth, trying to chip away at the electoral mandate of the PPP by using technical means to disqualify candidates," said Andrew Walker of the Australian National University in Canberra.

"What Thailand lacks is a culture of respect for the majority decision," he said. "The view is that if the electorate comes up with a decision that certain people in the elite don't like, then that government can be got rid of."

If the PPP does indeed end up disqualified or with a severely depleted number of candidates, the anti-Thaksin Democrats are likely to emerge as leaders of a weak and unstable coalition involving as many as five other parties.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Michael Battye and Roger Crabb)

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