Exit polls showed Thailand’s prime minister, a self-made telecom millionaire, headed for a landslide victory in parliamentary elections on Sunday.
Thaksin Shinwatra, 55, had been widely expected to win a second term, boosted by strong support from the rural poor and his adroit handling of the tsunami disaster.
The Suan Dusit-TV Channel and The Nation newspaper said he greatly expanded his mandate. The television poll gave his Thai Love Thai party 399 of 500 seats while the Nation showed it with 340 seats.
The party won 248 of 500 parliamentary seats in its 2001 election debut.
Opponents accuse Thaksin of seeking dictatorship through the ballot box, and had hoped to curb his power by getting the minimum 201 seats needed to launch motions of no-confidence.
But the television poll showed the main opposition party with just 80 seats, while The Nation gave the Democrats 110 seats.
The prime minister came under increasing fire last year for alleged cronyism, inept handling of the bird flu outbreak and failure to curb sectarian violence in Thailand’s Muslim-dominated south. His intolerance of criticism also raised concern.
But his reaction to the Dec. 26 tsunami was quick and effective, rushing to the scene with ministers in tow, barking orders and consoling survivors. Debate about his failings was soon swept off the front pages.
'The government is our last resort'
Villagers in the devastated areas lined up to vote at polling booths often within sight of where their homes once stood and now dead family members lived.
“It’s important to choose the government because the government is our last resort,” said Jam Krathalae, a 35-year-old fisherman whose boat and house were demolished by the killer waves. “I have nothing left. The government would be the only help.”
Nearly 5,400 people died when the tsunami thrashed parts of southern Thailand. Another 3,100 people are still missing while hundreds are living in makeshift camps, from which voters were transported to polling booths.
In Thailand’s southern province of Pattani, a 66-year-old Muslim woman said she was voting for peace in a region where more than 650 people were killed last year in the escalating insurgency.
“I hope my vote will make everyone concerned realize that we love democracy, that we are not violent,” Jaemoh Benhabas said.
Helicopters and some 30,000 troops guarded polls in the south. No violence was reported, but protesters burned Thaksin campaign posters.
Thaksin rode to victory four years ago on public disenchantment with the slow pace of recovery from Thailand’s 1997 financial crisis. His vast personal fortune in the telecom industry was a key advantage in forging a nationwide political network.
Populist initiatives delivering benefits such as affordable health care earned him the support of Thailand’s rural majority.