Monday, December 15, 2008

Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva selected Thai PM

Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was selected as Thailand's third prime minister in as many months on Monday, taking control with a slender majority in parliament and an economy teetering on the brink of recession.

In a sign of the trouble in store for the Oxford-educated economist, at least 200 supporters of the previous administration, sacked by the courts two weeks ago, blocked access to parliament and smashed windows of cars carrying MPs who had backed him.

Chanting "Abhisit, army nominee", the red-shirted demonstrators denounced the 44-year-old as a front man for the military, which ousted elected leader Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and which has been accused of political meddling ever since.

Abhisit won support from 235 MPs from his Democrat party and a range of others, including a breakaway faction of the Puea Thai party that had backed Thaksin, now convicted of graft and in exile. He needed 219 votes to become prime minister.

His slender majority suggests the turmoil of the last three years will continue, especially when the economy, which depends on exports and tourism, feels the full force of the global slowdown and the recent week-long blockade of Bangkok's airports by royalist, anti-Thaksin protesters.

"Very soon, the impact of the global economic crisis will be felt more seriously in Thailand. The new PM needs to prepare immediately for that," Sompop Manarungsan of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University said.

Outgoing Finance Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech has forecast the economy would shrink 0.5-1.0 percent in the first quarter of 2009 from a year earlier and post no growth in the second, putting it on the brink of recession.

Abhisit says reviving growth through increased government spending will be his priority, although it remains to be seen where he will get the money from.

At a news conference immediately after the vote, Abhisit said he would not outline any ideas or initiatives until he was sworn in by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

He has suggested there could be some reallocation of regional spending, but that would be sure to outrage voters in the populous north and northeast, where a love of Thaksin and loathing of Abhisit runs deep.

He was once forced to flee the stage at a Democrat rally in the northern city of Chiang Mai under a barrage of rotten vegetables.


Nor is Thaksin completely out of the picture.

On Saturday, the telecoms billionaire made a recorded video address to 40,000 supporters at a Bangkok sports stadium, calling for national reconciliation and urging the military not to meddle in Monday's parliamentary vote.

"May all sides take one step back and respect the results," he said. "Please don't use any institution to intervene. Just let the country move forward. Don't make people suffer more."

His supporters have accused the military of launching a "silent coup" by claiming to have royal backing and pushing small parties in the previous government to form a Democrat-led government, a charge the army has denied.

A member of Thaksin's inner circle told Reuters last week the gloom hanging over the country may well make Abhisit's win a Pyrrhic victory, destroying his image among businessmen and Bangkok's middle classes as a safe pair of hands on the economic tiller.

(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan and Darren Schuettler)

Copyright © 2008 Reuters

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