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Turbulent Thailand

Fervid candidates turn Thai election registration into carnival

Contenders change their names and don costumes to rally voters

BANGKOK -- Over a dozen candidates contesting in the upcoming Thai general elections have changed their names to Thaksin and Yingluck in the hopes of garnering votes by aligning themselves with the popular Shinawatra siblings who previously served as prime ministers.

In a strange development, 15 members of Pheu Chart Party, with links to the powerful Shinawatra family, came up with the idea to legally change their names to appeal to voters. Registration for the March 24 elections started on Monday and will end on Friday. Thailand's first election in eight years is an attempt to reestablish democracy after military rule and its legitimacy will be closely watched by the international community.

Ten male candidates of the Pheu Chart Party named themselves Thaksin after former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Five female candidates named themselves Yingluck after Thaksin's sister and also a former prime minister.

Pheu Chart Party is an ally of Pheu Thai Party, which is closely related to the Shinawatras. The two former prime ministers were removed from office and subsequently, and separately, convicted of corruption. They had since absconded and now live in exile, but remain popular in the rural north and northeast of Thailand, where many make a living in agriculture.

The measures they implemented during their tenures to support farmers, such as Yingluck's rice pledging program in 2011, still endear them to the agricultural community who form the core of their support base.

Candidates who want to contest in Thailand's general elections on March 24 have until Friday to register their interest. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Thaksin Kiratisakvorakul, a Pheu Chart candidate formerly known as Jiraroj, told a local newspaper that he changed his name so that voters will remember him. Another candidate Yingluck Phetraksa, who changed her name from Kanokwan, said: "Yingluck has done a lot of good things for society. We don't want to forget her." 

Such a strategy will certainly annoy the junta, even though it is common culturally for Thais to change names, as the current leaders see the Shinawatras as destabilizing the political order. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kreangam said the tactic was unprecedented and that the Election Commission would look into the legality of it.

But the Department of Provincial Administration, which oversees local affairs, saw no problem with the name changes. "Changing a name is within the rights of the people as long as the name is not deemed immoral, indecent or the same as a royally bestowed name," said Wichian Chidchanoknart, deputy director-general of the department. "There are thousands of people called Thaksin and Yingluck and their names are not considered illegal," he added.

Other candidates have used the registration process as a performance stage. Sarunwut Sarunkate, a Pheu Thai candidate for the northern province of Uttaradit, arrived to register in traditional Thai warrior garb, on a horse. Sarunwut said the outfit shows his determination to battle the junta. Noppajun Woratitwuttikul, a representative of minor Palang Prachatipatai Party, was dressed as the Lone Ranger with a mask and a hat. He held a sign that read: "Say no corruption."

A staff of the Democrat Party puts up the number "9," a coveted low single-digit registration number, on the poster for a candidate in Bangkok. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Future Forward, a new party led by young and successful businessman Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, presented its candidates in the most professional and formal way. The leader and 30 candidates arrived at Bangkok's registration venue by public bus, instead of a chartered vehicle or campaign truck. They were dressed in white collared shirts and trousers, unlike members of other major parties who mostly wore tops emblazoned with their party names.

Future Forward said it represents the younger generation. They will appeal to some voters because of their seeming approachability and environmental awareness. In fact, Thanathorn said: "We all travel together by public bus in order to reduce pollution."

In a sign that candidates will do anything to ensure they are in with a shout, over a thousand Bangkok constituency candidates and their supporting party members gathered at the registration venue hours ahead of opening on Monday, in hopes of getting their hands on one valuable asset: a low single-digit registration number.

Over 6,000 candidates registered by Tuesday, double the number in 2011. The Election Commission will unveil the official list of candidates on Feb. 15.

Election fever has certainly hit Bangkok, as party placards are visible on every main street this week. After nearly five years under junta rule, Thais are embracing the chance to have a say in the country's future. The website for early voting registration crashed late January, as voters rushed to secure their balloting rights.

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