Turnout low in Thai polls to fill empty Senate seats

BANGKOK, Thailand, AP

Turnout appeared low Saturday as voters in eight Thai provinces went to the polls to elect senators to 11 seats that had gone vacant in the 200-member upper house. Ten senators, including Speaker Sanit Worapanya, were kicked out of their posts last month after the Election Commission ruled that there was compelling evidence that fraud played a part in their electoral victories a year earlier. The 11th senator, Chalerm Promlert, resigned after a scandal involving sex for money with underaged girls. They had been voted into office in March 2000 in Thailand’s first election under a new constitution meant to fight corruption and vote-buying. It was also the first time senators were chosen by direct election during 68 years of constitutional rule. The Election Commission was given extraordinary powers to monitor the election process and rule on its validity, including the right to disqualify candidates and winners suspected of cheating. Last year’s Senate election took 145 days to complete and cost 2.3 billion baht (US$51 million), and in a few areas there were as many as five rounds of voting due to its rulings that polling had been unfair. A report on the Web site of the newspaper The Nation said alleged poll frauds had been reported in most of the provinces where elections were held Saturday, but initial reports suggested it was less widespread than in previous elections. Prior to Saturday’s polls in Lopburi, Ayutthaya, Phayao, Ubon Ratchathani, Khon Kaen, Si Sa Ket, Ranong and Surat Thani provinces, the Election Commission had predicted a voter turnout of at least 60 percent, but news reports from several radio networks said polling stations were relatively empty . The Election Commission said vote counting began after the polls closed at 3:00 p.m. (0800 GMT) but official final results were not expected for several days.