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January 11, 2009

Thailand By-elections:
Polls seen as a test for ruling coalition

Polls opened under tight security in 22 Thai provinces on Sunday for by-elections that will be the first test among voters for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, reported AFP.

Voting began at 8:00 am (0100 GMT) for 29 parliamentary seats, with Abhisit's Democrat Party hoping to grab many of the constituencies away from the opposition and shore up its shaky coalition government.

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

Alcohol has been banned for the day in areas where voting is being held, with authorities cautious following months of sometimes violent political protests culminating in a week-long blockade of Bangkok's airports in November.

"We have not yet received any serious complaints except missing voting booths and 11 cases of illegal distribution of alcohol," Wichian told AFP.

Ten people were also arrested on Saturday evening after causing a fracas outside a Democrat Party office in northern Lamphun province, he added.

The Democrats lost elections in December 2007 to a party linked to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and only came to power in a parliamentary vote last month after a court dissolved the ruling People Power Party (PPP).

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

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 allies in the Chart Thai party, which was also disbanded.

Local press reported Democrat Party deputy leader Suthep Thaungsuban as saying that their coalition hoped to win 20 of the seats.

Abhisit came to power after fierce political horse-trading in December that saw a number of former PPP lawmakers and coalition partners defect.

Polling booths will close at 3:00pm and unofficial results are expected early Monday.

Also Sunday, millions of Bangkok residents will vote for a new governor after the incumbent Apirak Kosayodhin -- who is a deputy leader of the Democrat Party -- quit in November over corruption allegations.

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