Thai voters go to the polls Sunday to vote in a parliamentary election that is expected to produce another military-backed coalition government.
Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond, a 65-year-old retired Army general, is widely expected to retain his position, although he does not belong to a political party, has never run for public office and is not a candidate in this election. Under Thai law, a prime minister need not be an elected member of parliament.
Once the vote counting is completed, a period of wrangling is likely to follow as the leading parties jockey to put together a workable parliamentary majority, choose a prime minister and allocate Cabinet positions.
Thailand, with its 51 million people and prowestern government, is a major U.S. ally in Southeast Asia.
While few major campaign issues have emerged to excite Thailand's 26 million eligible voters, the election is generally seen as a step toward full-fledged democracy in a country that has seen 15 military coups or coup attempts since an absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. Since coming to power in 1980, Prem has survived two coup attempts, in 1981 and last year. His six-year tenure at the head of five coalition governments makes him the longest serving prime minister of a civilian government in Thai history.
A record 3,811 candidates from 16 political parties are competing for 347 seats in the House of Representatives. The upper house, the Senate, is appointed and is usually filled with military officers.
Among those running are more than 60 retired military officers, including 30 former generals. They include Kriangsak Chomanan, who served as prime minister before Prem and is currently on trial on charges of involvement in last year's coup attempt.
As in past Thai election campaigns, candidates have accused one another of vote buying, enlisting "ghost voters" and other dirty tricks. Violence has claimed the lives of at least 18 campaign workers and party supporters.
Police say some of the 18 murders reported so far may not be politically motivated but may have been committed for other reasons, using the election as a pretext.
The election also has given Thais a chance to indulge in a widespread love of gambling, with wagers placed on winners, losers and, sometimes, finishers. In Petchaburi Province in central Thailand, voters have been betting on whether a candidate running against a powerful family of political warlords will live until election day.
The party expected to fare best of the 16 contesting the elections is the Democratic Party led by Deputy Prime Minister Bhichai Rattakul. He has predicted his party would win at least 105 seats and form the core of a new coalition government. In a swipe at Prem, he also has said the new prime minister should be an elected party leader, and his party has been heavily touting him for the post.
Other major parties include the Chat Thai, or Thai Nation, party led by retired Maj. Gen. Chatichai Choonhavan and the Social Action Party, headed by retired Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila who is currently foreign minister.
While one of the main campaign issues has been whether the parties should insist on an elected prime minister, a leading rival to Prem for the post is another Army general who is not running, Arthit Kamlang-ek. His chances of replacing Prem have dimmed, however, since he was dismissed as Army commander on May 27.
Working against Prem is a widespread perception that the electorate is bored with him and wants a change, according to diplomats and Thai analysts. He also has come under criticism for an economic austerity program and for alleged indecisiveness in handling many issues, most notably a June 23 riot that damaged a new tantalum-processing plant in the southern resort town of Phuket.
But Prem is seen as the prospective prime minister most acceptable to the two leading power centers in the country: the military and King Bhumibol Adulyadej.