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Thai elections expected at year end

Published: 7:28PM Friday January 12, 2007 Source: Reuters

A general election in Thailand to restore democracy after September's military coup is likely to take place in December as long as there are no political "accidents", the head of the new constitution-drafting body said.

The earliest possible date for polls would be October, assuming a new charter was drawn up in the required 180 days and it passed a referendum in August, Noranit Setabutr, chairman of the Constitution Drafting Council said late on Thursday.

After ousting prime minister Thaksin Shinwatra on September 19, the army promised to return power to the people in one year under a new constitution.

"If there is no accident, it is very likely that the general election will be held by the end of December but I can't give you an exact date," said Noranit, who was elected chairman this week by the military-appointed 100-member council.

The retired politics professor declined to say what he meant by "accidents".

If the new charter fails to win referendum approval, the military have given themselves the power to introduce any one of the 17 constitutions that have appeared during 75 years of on-off democracy studded by 18 coups.

They would then call elections in December, Noranit told Reuters.

Three months after the putsch, the army and its appointed government have suffered a string of setbacks culminating in New Year's Eve bombs in Bangkok that killed three people.

Swirling rumours

Amid rumours of more coups, counter-coups and political violence, analysts have begun to doubt whether democracy will return in 2007. Producing a new constitution on time is a crucial milestone.

Noranit, whose post won royal approval on Thursday, said the new charter would fix loopholes in the 1997 "People's Constitution".

That document was hailed as Thailand's most democratic to date. However, it also allowed politicians with a massive parliamentary majority - as Thaksin had - to undermine the independent checks on the executive.

"The government can remain strong under the new constitution, but we also need a strong check-and-balance system to counter the strong administration," Noranit said.

"The key question is how we can ensure that independent watchdogs provided in the constitution will not be interfered with," he said.

With landslides in 2001 and 2005, Thaksin was the first elected prime minister to serve out a complete term.

But growing accusations of abuse of power led to street protests against him, especially after his family's tax-free $US1.9 billion sale of their stake in Shin Corp, the telecoms firm he founded, to Singapore state investment arm Temasek.

Noranit dismissed speculation the army would try to cling on to power by having the charter allow a non-elected figure serve as prime minister - as happened after a 1991 coup that led to bloody street demonstrations a year later.

"We lost scores of lives 15 years ago for an elected prime minister. Whoever wants to bring that clause back has to think hard about it," Noranit said.