Thailand's election has been transformed into a referendum on the future of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as calls for him to quit over corruption allegations grow more strident. It is unclear whether political chaos can be avoided even if Mr Thaksin legitimately wins the poll.
The billionaire premier's authoritarian style has ignited urban rage even while he retains loyalty among impoverished rural voters, who constitute nearly 70 per cent of Thailand's 64 million people. All three main opposition parties boycotted what critics denounced as a " pseudo-election" devised by a " tyrant" who has enriched his family and cronies with tax-free profits while in office and undermined democratic checks and balances .
Unopposed Mr Thaksin will sweep the elections but, due to minimum turn-out requirements, some seats may remain vacant, raising constitutional questions of whether he can form a government without another round of elections.
Yesterday's vote comes three years earlier than required. In the hasty run-up, some 400 candidates have been disqualified for violations in the nomination process, meaning Mr Thaksin may not be able to govern even if he wins.
He is the only Thai prime minister to complete a full elected term in office without being toppled by a coup. But after a landslide re-election last year, the populist telecoms billionaire weathered six months of street protests against his alleged graft, cronyism and abuse of power. Accusations of party kickbacks on new airport construction and a $1.9bn (£1.1bn) tax-free profit from selling shares of Shin, Mr Thaksin's family telecommunications empire, to the Singapore government's investment firm have alienated the urban elite.
Mr Thaksin denied all wrongdoing, and said he was determined to "ride out the storm" and win again. He volunteered to step aside if he garnered less than 50 per cent of the vote.
The preliminary election results in Bangkok were explosive, with more people abstaining than voting for the ruling party.
Just after polls closed, at least five soldiers were wounded when three remote-controlled blasts hit ballot boxes being transported from polling stations in the Muslim-majority border province of Narathiwat, where the Prime Minister has scant support. Separatist violence has killed at least 1,300 people in the rubber- tapping region over the past two years, and militants frequently target government institutions and civil servants.
The ruling party, Mr Thaksin's Tai Rak Tai (Thais Love Thais) won an unprecedented second term in 2005 by a landslide of 62 per cent. Rural villages received $5,000 or more each after Mr Thaksin's first victory and most used this reward money for micro-credit schemes. No wonder Mr Thaksin's power base remains strong: a "Caravan of the Poor" rode tractors to the capital to counter widespread anti-government protests and show their solidarity with the beleaguered politician.
Still, nothing is being taken for granted in this struggling democracy. Thailand has been rocked by 23 coups or attempted coups in 75 years. In the present polarised political climate, compromise or negotiation is increasingly difficult for Mr Thaksin's opponents, and the military is closely watched.
Candidates ran unopposed in 278 of 400 constituencies yesterday. Yet under Thailand's constitution, all candidates must win by 20 per cent of the votes, and this margin may be eroded by the boycott and abstention campaign in cities and big towns. A political stalemate will please no one. Protesters hope for intervention by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who could conceivably step in, sideline Mr Thaksin and allow another leader to take power.
Mr Thaksin was seen practising his golf swing on a suburban Bangkok driving range. "After the election, everyone should turn and face each other. It's like a game, a sport. After the whistle is blown, 'tweet,' the game is over and everyone has to shake hands," he said.
Yet his foes are not keen to play by these rules. Professionals, students and labour activists have swarmed the capital's streets and intend to resume protests even after a legitimate victory, in order to eject a globalised businessman they condemn for manipulating the law to his advantage. One day last month, some 130,000 anti- government protesters blocked the capital's notoriously jammed roads, and daily demonstrations continue to test the patience of Bangkok's residents.
People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), an anti-government coalition which suspended its protests this weekend, has vowed to continue its resistance by calling a large rally on Friday. Its volunteers monitored polling booths yesterday. "There could be all kinds of vote rigging in those constituencies, from buying votes to getting government officials to fabricate the results," said Somchai Srisuthiyakorn of P-Net, an election watchdog.
It looks as if the opposition is gearing up for a prolonged political crisis, whatever the election results.
From economic saviour to 'square-faced tyrant'
Thaksin Shinawatra, 56, the nouveau riche Prime Minister who once looked ready to become South-east Asia's economic strongman, is fighting for his political future while normally demure Bangkok schoolgirls denounce him as an ethically challenged "square-faced tyrant".
Crowds gather outside shopping malls or besiege Government House in order to decry the way their Prime Minister gave lip service to law and order, only to plunder Thailand's economy and pervert its democracy for the benefit of his family and corporate friends.
While his effigy blazed in central Bangkok last month, the premier fled up-country to campaign in flyblown villages where he is still hailed as a champion of cheap health care and low-cost loans.
Born to an ethnic Chinese silk merchant in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Mr Thaksin joined the police in 1973, then went abroad to Eastern Kentucky University to read criminal justice. During Thailand's first outbreak of bird flu, Thaksin mused about his student days flogging drumsticks at a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise to help pay for his studies, then he dished up a fowl feast for his cabinet and ordered it broadcast on government television channels. One of his biggest campaign contributors heads a poultry export firm.
Mr Thaksin earned a PhD at Sam Houston State University in Texas and taught at the Thai Police Cadet Academy. But in 1987 he quit to set up a computer dealership, and sold PCs to Thailand's rapidly modernising police force. His fledgling company morphed into Shin Corp, a conglomerate which controls satellites, mobile phones, internet servers and television stations.
Mr Thaksin's first term as premier was nearly a non-starter after he was charged with concealing business assets, but a constitutional court cleared him by a single vote for this "honest mistake". His zero tolerance approach to drugs has enhanced his image as a crime-fighter, but drawn claims that he has tolerated extrajudicial killings and ignored civil liberties. And his heavy-handed reaction to militancy in three Muslim provinces prompted complaints that his generals have fanned a separatist rebellion that had lain dormant for 20 years.