Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at the weekend become Thailand's first leader to be elected to a second consecutive term in office, with exit polls pointing to a result that would enable his party to rule without coalition partners.
Thaksin, a former telecom tycoon, looked set to take up to 399 seats in the 400-member parliament, compared to 295 seats in the last election, in 2001.
The strong showing comes despite past allegations of graft - he was acquitted of corruption in 2002 -- and more recent criticism of his government's controversial handling of a separatist conflict in the country's Muslim-majority southern provinces. Around 600 people have died since an old insurgency flared up in early 2004.
Notwithstanding allegations of authoritarianism and media censorship, Thaksin won support from voters happy with economic growth and poverty-eradication programs, and impressed by his quick response to December's tsunami disaster, in which more than 5,000 Thais and foreign tourists.
Thaksin has positioned Thailand as an ally in the war against militant Islam, and sent 450 military engineers, medics and other troops to Iraq for a year-long deployment that ended last August.
President Bush awarded Thailand major non-NATO ally status, a designation that opens the door to stepped-up military assistance for such countries as Japan, Australia and Israel.
A country of 63 million people, Thailand has a history of political turmoil, having undergone a revolution in 1932 and coups in 1976 and 1991.
Before the election, Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) ruled in coalition with a fractious partner but exit poll results indicate he will have no need to do so during his second term.
Sometimes accused of running Thailand like an autocratic CEO rather than an elected politician, Thaksin has pledged during his second term to develop the country's infrastructure through ambitious transport and communications projects.
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