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Thai elections under close watch

Constitution aims to fix problems that brought years of corruption.

Inside a cavernous workshop, men in blue overalls are welding and hammering away at stripped-down cars, racing to armor-plate them for Thailand's election campaign.

Preecha Puchaneeyakul's factory, the only one of its kind in Thailand, is where politicians and candidates go for extra protection before hitting the campaign trail.

The fact that Preecha's business is booming might not paint a pretty picture of Thai democracy as it approaches a critical Jan. 6 general election, yet in important ways the opposite is true.

Driven by economic crisis, and swept up in an Asia-wide push for cleaner politics, Thailand rewrote its constitution and is making its boldest attempt to root out corruption and run an honest election.

At least 18 people have been killed and scores injured in election-related shootouts since Nov. 9. Some 130,000 police have been deployed, and the military is on standby. Hundreds of grenades, rifles and pistols have been seized, and 200 politicians have asked for police protection.

But equally attention-grabbing this time around is the Election Commission, with its new power to stamp out vote-buying and disqualify corrupt candidates.

"In 68 years of on-and-off Thai democracy, we have had around 20 general elections, but not even once have we been able to punish a candidate," said Gothom Arya, one of the five election commissioners.

Until now, that is. The National Counter-Corruption Commission, set up under the constitution, threw the campaign into disarray on Tuesday by ruling that the leading contender for prime minister was guilty of financial wrongdoing that could bar him from the office.

Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai) party had been expected to outpoll Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai's Democrat Party and take the most seats in the 500-member House of Representatives. But Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, stands accused of having transferred millions of dollars' worth of shares under the names of employees when he became deputy prime minister in 1997.

He said he would fight the ruling in court. But if he loses, he will be banned from office for five years. The fall of such a powerful figure through legal means would be unprecedented in Thai history.

Newspapers on Wednesday denounced his continuing campaign. "Nation can't afford a PM under a cloud," was the headline of a Bangkok Post editorial. "Time to put ambitions on hold," headlined a front-page editorial in the Nation.

Meanwhile, the election commission is hard at work trying to root out the petty corruption that bedevils Thai politics, confiscating T-shirts, cooking utensils and stoves used to bribe voters.

The agency suffered an embarrassment Wednesday when a prominent member resigned after Thaksin allies revealed that she had failed to declare she was on the board of a private company. Preeya Kasemsant Na Ayudhya had chaired the agency committee that led the inquiry on Thaksin.