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January 12, 2009

Thailand Politics:
By-election boosts ruling coalition

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government won the most seats in by-elections on Sunday, early results showed, strengthening his shaky coalition in its first test at the polls, reported AFP.

Voting closed at 3:00 pm (0800 GMT) for 29 parliament seats across the kingdom, with Abhisit's Democrat Party-led coalition grabbing 20 seats and the opposition gaining nine in the 480-member parliament.

The Election Commission's public relations director Ruengroj Chomsueb said the Democrats won seven seats and its allies scooped 13, while the two parties linked to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra held on to nine seats.

Turnout was estimated at 60 percent, although the results still have to be certified by the Election Commission and officially announced within one month.

"I am grateful to Thai people who cast their vote," Abhisit told reporters.

"I can reassure people that the additional seats that we gained will make the government work more smoothly in parliament," he said, adding that no cabinet reshuffle was planned.

Ruengroj told AFP the polling went smoothly, with just a handful of complaints about voting irregularities.

The Democrats lost elections in December 2007 to the Thaksin-backed People Power Party (PPP) and came to office in a close parliamentary vote last month after a court dissolved the PPP.

That decision brought an end to six months of sometimes-violent protests against the PPP and Thaksin, which peaked with the crippling week-long occupation of Bangkok's two airports in late November.

The December 2 ruling by the Constitutional Court also banned scores of lawmakers from politics for five years because of vote fraud charges linked to the 2007 polls, triggering the by-elections.

Bangkok residents also voted on Sunday for a new governor, with the Suan Dusit university exit poll showing Democrat Party candidate Sukhumbhand Paribatra taking the job after winning nearly 47 percent of the vote.

Previous governor Apirak Kosayodhin - who is a deputy leader of the Democrat Party - quit in November last year, just a month after winning a second term, when corruption allegations emerged.

Deputy national police chief General Wichian Potphosri said more than 34,000 police had been deployed at polling stations for the by-elections, with the army and navy also helping out in some provinces.

Alcohol was banned for the day in areas where voting was held, with authorities cautious following months of political turmoil and protests by royalist anti-Thaksin group the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

Of the 29 seats up for grabs, 13 were held by the now-defunct PPP - which has regrouped in opposition as the Puea Thai party - and 16 were held by its then-allies in the Chart Thai party, which was also disbanded.

Puea Thai spokesman Pormpong Nopparit said earlier they were optimistic, telling AFP: "We hope at least to keep our 13 seats, and add five more."

Abhisit came to power in a tense parliamentary vote on December 15 after a number of former PPP lawmakers and smaller parties including the reformed Chart Thai defected, giving the Democrats a slim majority.

But supporters of the PPP and Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives abroad to dodge jail on graft charges, feel robbed of their democratic rights and have already launched protests against the new government.

Thailand remains deeply divided between those loyal to Thaksin and elements of the old power cliques in the military, palace and bureaucracy who felt threatened by his huge popularity with the rural poor.

The urbane, Oxford-educated Abhisit has so far failed to make a dent in Thaksin's support base in the north and northeast. The Democrat Party count Bangkok and the south as their strongholds.

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