Thailand heads to first post-coup polls

( AFP ) - Thailand heads to the polls Sunday in an election meant to restore democracy more than a year after the military ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose shadow looms large over the balloting.

About 45.7 million Thais are eligible to vote in the first post-coup election, in which opinion polls predict that neither of the kingdom's two leading parties will win a clear majority of the 480 seats in parliament.

Voting stations were to open at 8:00 am (0100 GMT) and close at 3:00 pm (0800 GMT). The Election Commission said voter turnout would likely reach 70 percent, with unofficial results due by midnight Sunday.

Frontrunners are the People Power Party (PPP), which was taken over by allies of Thaksin's disbanded Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, and the Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest political outfit.

Although the junta dissolved Thaksin's party and banned him from politics for five years after they seized power in a bloodless coup in September 2006, the former premier remains a dominant and divisive figure in Thai politics.

Analysts predict the outcome of the election will be unlikely to resolve deep divisions between anti-Thaksin urban dwellers and the rural masses, who remain loyal to the deposed leader.

PPP draws most of its support from farmers, the majority of Thailand's 64 million population, who remember efforts by the self-made billionaire Thaksin to boost the rural economy during his five-year rule.

The Democrat Party is popular among Bangkok's middle-class, who spearheaded anti-Thaksin protests that culminated in the coup.

"The poll this Sunday is a continuation of our ongoing political crisis," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"This election shows the struggle between pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin forces," he said.

While the polls are meant to return power from the military to civilian rule, observers question how free and fair they can be as more than one-third of the country, including Thaksin's strongholds, is still under martial law.

During its 15 months in power, the military has tried to ensure it will maintain influence over the government even after Sunday's election.

The military tossed out Thailand's 1997 constitution, which had been widely hailed as the most democratic the kingdom had ever known, and put an army-backed constitution to a referendum in August.

The passage of the constitution paved the way for Sunday's polls, but critics warn the charter will encourage weak coalition governments while returning real authority to the military, the bureaucracy and the royal palace.

All three institutions have played key roles in most of Thailand's turbulent political history, which has seen 24 prime ministers and 18 coups over the past 75 years.

Thaksin has been living in exile in London since the coup, but PPP announced in front of cheering supporters on Friday that he would return to Thailand on February 14 for the first time.

Coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin has said he will respect the outcome of the election, and a victory by the pro-Thaksin PPP in the polls would not cause "chaos" in the kingdom.

Meanwhile, the United States said Friday that it "looks forward" to the election.

Washington "eagerly awaits the return of democracy to Thailand so that we may resume our close and abiding relationship with this important ally," White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto said before the vote.

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