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Thai Parties Start Coalition Dealmaking

Thailand's political parties got down to hard bargaining on Monday after voters roundly rejected last year's military coup but failed to give the party backing ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra an outright majority.

Within minutes of the People Power Party (PPP) declaring victory, rumours swirled of two minor party chiefs heading off to see top royal adviser Prem Tinsulanonda, whom the Thaksin camp accuse of masterminding the bloodless putsch.

The parties denied any such meeting, although with PPP winning 228 of 480 seats in parliament, analysts say the army and Thailand's old elite are likely to be calling in every favor possible to stop Thaksin making a comeback by proxy.

Abrasive PPP leader Samak Sundaravej said Thaksin had phoned from exile to congratulate him on the result, a major problem for the generals whose campaign to consign the telecoms billionaire to political oblivion now lies in tatters.

"It is a victory for this country," Samak told a news conference, adding that he would "certainly be prime minister."

"This country lost its freedom on September 19 last year for no good reason," he said.

With the Democrat Party holding 166 seats, PPP's possible partners are any of five small middle-ground parties -- Chart Thai, Peua Pandin, Ruam Jai Thai, Matchima and Pracharat -- none of which stand out as obvious bedfellows.

However, given the propensity in Thai politics for money to trump ideology, any of them could take the plunge.

Although some analysts said a strong PPP showing could trigger another coup, others believe the army-appointed government is more likely to try first to stymie the PPP by disqualifying candidates for vote fraud.

The bigger the PPP win, the harder that will be.

"It depends how many red cards they have to issue," said Kevin Hewison, a Thai expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "If it's 40 or 50, it may be difficult, but if it's only 10 or 20, they might be able to do it."

The Election Commission said it had received more than 750 complaints, but was taking only 157 of them seriously. It was not clear how many of these could lead to disqualifications.

Samak said he did not foresee another coup since new army chief Anupong Paochinda was a "good guy" committed to keeping out of politics.

But the military would prefer a government led by the Democrats, the main opposition during Thaksin's five years in power, even though most analysts say such a coalition would be
weak and unlikely to last beyond a year.

Financial markets hope the return of an elected administration will signal the end of a period of disappointing economic growth, likely to fall from 5.1 percent in 2006 towards four percent this year, the lowest rate in six years.

PPP have already said they would lift the capital controls imposed a year ago to rein in the rapidly-strengthening baht.