Thais voted in Senate elections Wednesday that government critics warned could revive political tensions which prompted mass street protests and the resignation of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Voting was marred by violence in the restive south, which has been gripped by an Islamic insurgency for two years. Suspected insurgents ambushed election officials in five separate attacks that killed two policemen and an election worker. At least two dozen people were injured.
Elsewhere, the country was calm as polls closed at 3 p.m. (0800 GMT), with final results not expected until later in the week. Academics, opposition politicians and newspaper editorials urged the country's 45 million registered voters to shun candidates with ties to the ruling party and to usher in an upper house of Parliament that could act as a true check on the government's power and weed out corruption in politics.
Candidates for the 200-seat Senate are required by the constitution to have no political affiliation. Thailand 's upper house, which appoints members of anti-graft agencies and can block legislation, is meant to be a politically neutral body. But critics say the Senate has failed to live up to its ideal of impartiality.
"The previous Senate will go down in history as a Thai democratic experiment that went seriously wrong," The Nation newspaper said in an editorial Wednesday that urged "freedom-loving" voters to elect reform-minded candidates while acknowledging the options were limited. Many of the 1,477 candidates are relatives or allies of ruling party politicians, and anti-Thaksin campaigners warn that the incoming class of senators risks serving as a rubber-stamp body for the ruling party.
"The problem is that the majority of senatorial candidates seeking election this time are basically no different from their counterparts in the previous election," the editorial said. The Nation reported that at least 55 candidates had apparent links with the ruling Thai Rak Thai party such as Thaksin's sister-in-law, Pawruthai Shinawatra.
Others included one of Thaksin's lawyers, Thana Benjathikul; a former high-ranking official in Thaksin's party, Thawee Kraikub; the wife of a deputy prime minister, Poonpirom Liptapanlop; the wife of the environment minister, Salakjit Tiyapairat; and Chai Chidchob, the father of a Cabinet minister. The legislative election comes two weeks after a controversial snap general election called by Thaksin to defuse massive anti-government protests.
"Let's hope that the vigorous political spirit triggered by the ongoing political crisis ... will again manifest itself in the Senate election," columnist Thepchai Yong wrote in a recent commentary in The Nation, calling for high turnout. Though street rallies have died down, Thailand 's fragile democracy was bruised by the April 2 elections. Because the polls were boycotted by the main opposition parties, the ruling party gained almost absolute control over the House of Representatives.
Amid intensified calls for political reforms, Thaksin shortly after the election announced that he was stepping down to take a "break" from politics and restore national unity. But critics who accuse Thaksin of widespread corruption believe the telecom tycoon-turned-politician has already charted a comeback course, which includes continuing his domination of the Senate. Up until the last Senate election in 2000, senators were appointed by the government. The creation of a directly elected Senate, a product of the 1997 reformist constitution, was seen as a way to ensure checks and balances. The body appoints members to independent watchdogs such as the Election Commission and National Counter-Corruption Commission and votes on whether to remove officials and politicians deemed corrupt by the anti-graft body, reports the AP.