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Thailand politicians gearing up for new elections after a new constitution win

Thai politicians began Monday gearing up for new elections after a new constitution won approval in a national referendum, clearing the way for a return to democracy after last year's coup.

Electoral officials indicated a general election would likely be held in the second half of December, easing the military from its current position of power and returning political parties to the spotlight - though with influence reduced under what will be Thailand's 18th constitution.

Nearly 26 million, or 57.6 percent, of the country's eligible voters turned out for Sunday's referendum, delivering a mixed message about Thailand's political prospects.

The constitution, drafted by a committee selected by the military, was approved by almost 58 percent of those voting nationwide. But it was knocked back in the country's poor agricultural northeast, the stronghold of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless coup last September.

The 63 percent "no" vote in the northeast - along with just a narrow win for the new charter in the north, Thaksin's home region - suggests that the former leader retains a strong political following, even though his party was dissolved in May by the courts for electoral fraud last year.

Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai - Thai Love Thai - party had romped to landslide victories that put him solidly in power from 2001 to 2006. Critics charged he was able to use his vast personal wealth - earned in the telecoms sector - to secure what some saw as a parliamentary dictatorship.

Despite the dissolution of his party - and a five-year court-ordered ban on its 111 executive members from taking elective office - Thaksin's loyalists continue to organize.

More than 440 former members of the disbanded party applied to become members of the little-known Palang Prachachon - People's Power - Party, in what is widely deemed as a takeover to serve as a substitute for the defunct party. Of those, more than 200 were former Thai Rak Thai members of Parliament.

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