Polling began in Thailand’s elections Sunday with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra poised for a sweeping victory which would deliver the premier an unprecedented second term in power.
Voting booths in the kingdom’s 400 constituencies opened at 8:00 am (0100 GMT) and will close seven hours later, with projected unofficial results by television stations expected late Sunday.
"A lot of people are paying attention to this election because they want to see if people still believe in Thaksin or not," a 60-year-old man, who was one of the first to enter the booths at Bangkok’s Yannawa public school, told AFP.
Thaksin, a former policeman and billionaire telecom tycoon who stormed to power with a landslide election win in January 2001 at the head of his then-new Thai Rak Thai-party, is aiming to govern without a coalition partner this term.
"We want to be a single-party government," Thaksin told a cheering crowd in Bangkok at his last rally Friday, distancing himself from current partner, the Chart Thai party.
Thailand’s 44 million eligible voters were casting ballots six weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami slammed into six southern provinces, killing nearly 5,400 people.
Thaksin’s party is targeting at least 350 seats out of the 500 up for grabs, a margin of victory that opponents fear would make the government an elected dictatorship.
With so many seats under TRT’s belt, the opposition would be unable to launch any censure motion against Thaksin or his party, which critics fear hands too much power to the premier whom they label as being increasingly authoritarian.
In a country where every previous elected government has fallen either to military coups or political squabbling, Thaksin’s is the first to survive a full four-year term.
The mogul has largely delivered on his promises to revive Thailand’s fortunes after the 1997 Asian financial crisis and has proved a popular leader.
Pre-election polls are officially banned, but a survey by the respected Matichon newspaper and Dsurakitvanid University predicted that TRT would win 349 seats, up from its present share of 320.
The poll left the Democrats well short of their goal with just 101 seats, giving Chart Thai 37 and the new Mahachon party 11, with one seat each for the Social Action Party and the Labor party.
The Democrats are only hoping for 201 seats, but they have been unable to recover from their crushing defeat in 2001 and their ensuing leadership split.
The prospect of an even more powerful Thaksin raises alarm among groups such as Human Rights Watch, which considers Thailand "a country of high concern."
Critics are concerned over Thaksin’s military crackdown on a 13-month Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost provinces, which has left more than 580 dead and sparked two controversial clashes that ended with the deaths of hundreds of militants or protesters.
Thaksin’s war on drugs left some 2,275 suspected drug offenders dead in apparent extrajudicial killings between February and May 2003.
His massive edge going into the polls — which has not been swayed by the crises that have marred his term — has not done away with old-school political traditions like vote-buying, fraud and violence.
Election Commission officials have received more than 90 allegations of fraud, vote-buying or other irregularities, while senior police officials said 14 people had been killed in pre-election violence this year.