Opposition Leader Wins in Thailand Vote

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 15, 2008; 11:36 AM

BANGKOK, Dec. 15 -- Thailand got its third prime minister in four months Monday, after former opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was voted into power in a deal that many hope will end six months of political paralysis.

Abhisit, a Britain-born economist, won a parliamentary vote against former national police chief Pracha Promnok. The vote was called after Somchai Wongsawat was removed from office 10 days ago by the country's constitutional court, which found his party guilty of irregularities in elections held last December.

An angry group of about 200 supporters of the ousted government demonstrated outside parliament Monday, piling crowd barriers in front of the main gate and stoning some of the lawmakers' cars as they left the debate.

Over the past few months, political mobs have become an increasingly powerful factor in Thailand's politics. Violent anti-government demonstrations made it difficult for Somchai's administration to function. The protests culminated in a week-long occupation of the country's two main airports, crippling Thailand's vital tourism industry.

Abhisit, 44, has promised a rapid disbursement of government funds to try to revive the economy, but with tourism, foreign direct investment and exports all reeling from the double blow of global economic slowdown and domestic political turmoil, his government faces substantial challenges.

"The first order for the new government is to restore confidence in the economy, both internationally and domestically; they need to come up with a rescue package," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Abhisit's Democrat Party won just over 34 percent of the votes cast in last year's elections. He won Monday's vote 235 to 198 by persuading many members of the former ruling coalition to change sides. However, many observers think that with its limited electoral mandate, the new government could be forced to call an election in the not too distant future.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial former prime minister who is the godfather of the political movement that put Somchai into office, warned in a televised address over the weekend that parliament members who changed sides would be punished at the ballot box the next time there are elections.

During the 13 days of intense politicking that followed Somchai's removal, both sides accused the other of offering money in return for votes.

The Democrats quarantined many of their newly won supporters overnight Sunday, keeping them in hotels and telling them to switch off their telephones to make sure that their opponents could not poach them.

The protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy, a minority, middle-class group, said they would return to the streets if any of Somchai's allies were to be made prime minister.

Many of the lawmakers who did change sides said they did so to avoid a repeat of the impasse.

"He was hoisted into office by the back door," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist, said of Abhisit. "The military have arm-twisted former government MPs to change sides; he's benefited from a kind of judicial veto exercised when the courts don't like the government, and the People's Alliance for Democracy has effectively blackmailed the legislature to prevent another Puea Thai government."

Thitinan said he believes that the new government will have a honeymoon period to prove itself to the electorate but warned that the pressures are already mounting.

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