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Thaksin expected to win Thailand election
Updated: 2005-02-06 23:27

Thai voters appeared Sunday to have handed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra a second term with an expanded mandate, in a victory propelled by strong support from the rural poor and his adroit handling of the tsunami disaster.

Opponents of the strong-willed prime minister, who accuse him of seeking dictatorship through the ballot box, all but conceded defeat before the election but had hoped to limit his expected landslide victory by netting at least enough seats to launch motions of no-confidence.

Early exit polls showed their hopes had been dashed. One poll showed that Thaksin's ruling Thai Rak Thai, or Thai Love Thai, party may have captured as many as 399 out of the 500 parliamentary seats up for grabs. Another gave him 340 seats.

Preliminary results were not expected until late Sunday and the spokesman for Thaksin's party, Surananda Vejjajiva, said he would make no comments until the count was in. The party that Thaksin created — Thai Rak Thai — won 248 seats in its 2001 election debut, and had aimed to capture more than 350 this time.

Thaksin came under fire last year for alleged cronyism, inept handling of the bird flu outbreak and failure to curb sectarian violence in Thailand's Muslim-dominated south. His intolerance of criticism also raised concern.

But his reaction to the Dec. 26 tsunami was quick and effective, rushing to the scene with ministers in tow, barking orders and consoling survivors. Debate about his failings was soon swept off the front pages.

Villagers in the devastated areas lined up to vote at polling booths, often within sight of where their homes once stood and now dead family members lived.

"It's important to choose the government because the government is our last resort," said Jam Krathalae, a 35-year-old fisherman whose boat and house were demolished by the killer waves. "I have nothing left. The government would be the only help."

Nearly 5,400 people are confirmed to have died when the tsunami thrashed parts of southern Thailand. Another 3,100 people are still missing and hundreds are living in makeshift camps, from which voters were transported to polling booths.

In Thailand's southern province of Pattani, a 66-year-old Muslim woman said she was voting for peace in a region where more than 650 people were killed last year in the escalating insurgency.

"I hope my vote will make everyone concerned realize that we love democracy, that we are not violent," Jaemoh Benhabas said.

Helicopters and some 30,000 troops guarded polls in the south. No violence was reported, but protesters burned Thaksin campaign posters.

Thaksin, 55, is a self-made telecom millionaire who rode to victory four years ago on public disenchantment with the slow pace of recovery from Thailand's 1997 financial crisis. His vast personal fortune was a key advantage in forging a nationwide political network.

Populist initiatives delivering benefits such as affordable health care earned him the support of Thailand's rural majority.

A confident Thaksin vowed at a rally Friday to form "a single-party government," spurning a potential coalition partner, the Chart Thai party.

The Democrat party had implored voters to give it the minimum of 201 parliamentary seats needed to launch a no-confidence motion against the prime minister.

The Democrats and other critics fear that if Thaksin's party commands a huge majority in the legislature, he will ignore all criticism and establish a "parliamentary dictatorship."

One exit poll showed the Democrats winning 110 seats and another had them with 80. Two other parties — the Chart Thai and Mahachon — were projected as winning far fewer seats.

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