Thais vote for Senate as PM showdown looms
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra casts her ballot in the senate elections at a polling station in Bangkok on March 30, 2014 - by Pornchai Kittiwongsakul
While the Senate is officially non-partisan, in reality the two main political camps are vying for control of the chamber in the absence of a functioning lower house following incomplete February polls.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has resisted massive pressure to step down despite months of street protests and a slew of legal moves against her -- including over her alleged role in a rice subsidy scheme that could lead to an impeachment vote in the Senate.
Polls closed on Sunday afternoon, according to an election official, who said there was no repeat of the widespread disruption caused by anti-government protesters to a February 2 general election, which was also boycotted by the main opposition party.
That vote was voided by the Constitutional Court earlier this month.
"Today's (Sunday's) election went smoothly... if the parties concerned create a stable political situation then an election can be successful," Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn told reporters.
With Thailand's political crisis lurching towards its sixth month, the Senate polls have taken on fresh importance.
Experts say the elected portion -- a narrow majority of the 150-seat chamber -- could install many pro-government senators to help bolster the administration in the face of looming legal challenges.
The other, unelected senators are appointed by institutions seen as allied to the anti-government establishment, such as the Constitutional Court and the Election Commission.
Preliminary results are due late Sunday but the official list of newly elected senators could take days to approve.
At a central Bangkok polling station a steady streams of voters cast their vote, according to AFP reporters.
"Elections are best for democracy. Whatever we do, we must have elections," said 65-year-old voter Amnuay Aransri.
- Negligence charges -
Thailand has seen years of political conflict and rival street protests by opponents and supporters of Yingluck's brother, fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a coup in 2006.
The billionaire tycoon-turned-politician, who clashed with the royalist establishment, fled overseas in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction, but he is seen as the de facto leader of his sister's Puea Thai party.
Yingluck has faced months of mass rallies demanding she step down to make way for an unelected interim government to oversee reforms.
Political violence, often targeting protesters, has left 23 people dead and hundreds wounded in grenade attacks and shootings in recent months, although the bloodshed has abated since the demonstrations were scaled back at the start of March.
Observers say the crisis now appears to be entering a crucial new phase.
Yingluck has been summoned to appear before the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) by Monday to defend herself against negligence charges linked to the rice scheme -- although it was unclear if she will attend in person.
The anti-graft body says she ignored warnings of corruption and financial losses in the flagship policy.
If indicted she would face an impeachment vote in the upper house that could result in her removal from office and a five-year ban from politics.
It means the balance of power in the Senate could be pivotal to her survival as premier.
"The Senate could actually begin to hasten the end of the Yingluck government within two weeks of the NACC decisions on whether to impeach," according to Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.
"That being said, if the elected senators are mostly pro-Thaksin, and they likely will be, then this development may sustain the Yingluck government," he added.
Her supporters have warned they will not tolerate the dismissal of another democratically elected government, raising the spectre of more turmoil on the streets.
The pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" are preparing to stage their own mass rally on April 5 in a show of support for the government.
Their street rallies against the previous government in 2010 resulted in street clashes and a military crackdown that left dozens dead.
An attempt by Yingluck's party to push through a bill that would have made the Senate fully elected was blocked by the Constitutional Court in November, which deemed it unconstitutional.
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