|People's Power Party leader Samak Sundaravej|
BANGKOK - Loyalists of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra won nearly half the seats in Thailand's parliamentary elections yesterday in a striking rebuke to the generals who forced the billionaire populist from power in 2006.
The first vote since the coup appeared to be a recipe for continuing political instability: The failure of the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party to capture an absolute majority in the 480-seat lower house of parliament opens the way for his opponents to form a government despite the PPP's substantial mandate.
With more than 95 percent of the vote counted, the People's Power Party - established after Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party was disbanded by court order earlier this year - had won 228 seats, according to the state Election Commission.
Complete results were due today.
"I would like to call for all political parties to join us in forming a strong government," PPP leader Samak Sundaravej said at a press conference. "I will certainly be the prime minister."
He said Thaksin, who was in Hong Kong, had telephoned to offer his congratulations after hearing the results.
The second-place Democrat Party took 165 seats.
"If the PPP succeeds in forming the government, the Democrat Party is ready to be in the opposition to protect the people's interest.
However, if the PPP fails to form a government, the Democrat Party is also ready to form a government," said Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejajjiva.
The PPP got most of its support from the rural north and northeast, where Thaksin's programs, including universal healthcare and generous village development funds, won a hard-core following.
The Democrats ran strongest in Bangkok, where the 2006 movement to oust Thaksin was centered.
Only seven parties of 39 running won parliamentary seats. About 60 percent of 45 million eligible voters cast ballots for about 5,000 candidates.
If the PPP comes to power, said Nakarin Mektrairat, dean of Thammasat University's Faculty of Political Science, "there will be tension and conflicts," in part because of its lack of support from the capital's residents.
Thai politics has been in almost constant turmoil since early 2006, when protests mushroomed demanding that Thaksin step down, despite his party's landslide victory a year earlier giving it an absolute parliamentary majority.
An April 2006 election was boycotted by the opposition and later declared invalid by the courts, leaving Thaksin's government in limbo until the September 19 coup last year. But the military-appointed interim government that succeeded it proved weak and indecisive, failing to restore public confidence.
Thaksin was abroad at the time of his ouster, and has stayed in exile, legally barred from office, having his party dissolved by the courts, and being charged with a slew of corruption-related crimes.