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Tensions rise as Thais head to polls

On Sunday, supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra are expected to win a majority in the first parliamentary elections since last September's military coup.

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Thai voters go to the polls Sunday in the first elections to be held since a bloodless military takeover last year. But the final results may not be to the generals' liking, dimming the prospect for a smooth hand over of power and an end to a protracted political crisis.

Election officials expect a large turnout after nearly 3 million out of 45 million eligible voters cast advance or absentee ballots last weekend. The elections are the first to be run under a new military-backed Constitution, Thailand's 18th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Politicians have already vowed to amend the 2007 Constitution, which gives judges, bureaucrats, and generals immense powers to keep elected governments in check.

In recent weeks, tensions have risen over the strong showing of the People's Power Party (PPP), which is openly loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Polling is illegal during the final week of campaigning, but previous polls indicated that the PPP may win as many as half of the 480 seats in parliament, well ahead of the second-place Democrat Party.

Whoever takes office will face the challenge of restoring confidence in an economy that has slipped behind competitors like Vietnam and Malaysia in terms of growth. A grinding separatist insurgency in southern Thailand has killed over 2,600 since 2004 and deepened the Muslim majority's mistrust of the Thai government. Perhaps the thorniest task is to mend the social divisions exposed by the backlash to Thaksin and his brand of economic populism that was seen as a threat to traditional elites.

Analysts say the gap between the coup leaders' claim to be saving the nation from ruin and the economic hardship felt by many in the countryside during their rule is a powerful recruiting tool. Among PPP activists, a constant message is the unfair treatment of Thaksin at the hands of generals who they say are less than competent.

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