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by Marwaan Macan-Markar

Thailand Government Falls As Court Bans Ruling Party

(IPS) BANGKOK -- Almost a year after his party suffered its third consecutive electoral defeat, Abhisit Vijjajiva rode to victory to become Thailand's new prime minister, the third this year. It was not a choice of the voters, though.

Abhisit was selected as the country's 27th premier in a hotly contested battle in parliament, where the Democrat Party that he heads is the second largest party after the Puea Thai (For Thai) party.

While Abhisit got 235 votes from the total of 437 sitting legislators, Pracha Promnok, the candidate Puea Thai backed, claimed 198.

The 44-year-old leader is a darling of Bangkok's elite, thanks to his patrician upbringing and his pro-establishment credentials. The clean-cut, youthful-looking Abhisit was born in England and studied in two hallowed institutions, Eton, for his secondary education, and Oxford University.

Many Thais saw him as a future leader when he was elected as a Democrat Party candidate in the 1992 elections, the first held after the country's 17th military coup the previous year. He was 27 at the time, becoming one of the youngest parliamentarians.

In 2005, his upward journey continued when he won the backing of the Democrat Party, the oldest party in Thailand, to be its leader. And the image he began to carve out was that of a moderate, with a commitment to liberal ideas, supportive of some pro-poor measures and showing a distaste towards corruption -- a scourge that runs through all layers of this kingdom.

In Abhisit, Thailand has a trained economist as the helmsman at a time when the country is suffering from domestic woes due to political turmoil and feeling the pinch of the global financial crisis. The jump in the stock market soon after the parliament's vote was announced reflected how well this victory was received in business quarters.

‘'Business leaders needed a break from the tension over the past months and the political instability, and they are hopeful that this would be it,' says Laurent Malespine, managing director of Don't Blink, a Bangkok-based political and media research company. ‘'They also know that the Democrats have a lot of experience handling coalitions.'

But the coalition government Abhisit heads faces circumstances vastly different to that during the two previous Democrat-led coalitions, in late 1992 and in 1997.

The first was in the wake of a political crisis, following a bloody clash between a military dictatorship and pro-democracy activists. The second followed the 1997 financial crisis, which began in Thailand and spread across Southeast Asia.

Thailand today is gripped with a combination of both -- a crisis of democratic legitimacy and mounting economic troubles. Little wonder why former prime minister Chuan Leekpai, who headed the two previous Democrat-led coalitions, sounded the alarm about the more intense difficulties Abhisit inherits.

‘'The country has not only (been) hit by the economic crisis but also suffered from social division,' Chuan was quoted as having said, according to ‘The Nation' newspaper. ‘'It is not easy to administer the country at this period of difficulties. Everybody has to work hard and sacrifice for the sake of the country.'

Abhisit's other challenges will be the criticism that will invariably dog him about the scale of skulduggery unleashed by his party's political brokers to win support from smaller parties and from parliamentarians who defected from the Puea Thai party. A reported 40 million baht ($1.2 million) was offered to each parliamentarian to defect to the Democrat-led coalition.

In addition, the ‘Bangkok Post' reported in its Monday edition that legislators whose loyalty had been secured to become part of the Democrat coalition were forcefully kept in isolation in ‘'safe hotels' and some of them were prevented from using their mobile phones.

The Democrat's return to power also benefited from the right-wing, pro-royalist protest movement, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which took to the streets in May, then forcefully occupied the prime minister's office and finally Thailand's largest international airport to force from power the government elected at the December 2007 poll.

The ousted government was a coalition headed by the People Power Party (PPP), which came to power in the first poll after Thailand's 18th military coup, in September 2006. The PPP, which has strong support among the country's rural and urban poor, was dissolved early this month by a superior court, resulting in the collapse of the government.

By then the PPP had been made powerless as Thailand's powerful army chief refused to follow orders to bring to an end the mayhem being caused by the PAD. Such an act of defiance by the military removed all doubts as to which political camp it favoured.

‘'The Democrats are the direct beneficiaries of the judicial activism, military pressure and the PAD's role. They have been hoisted into power by the establishment forces,' says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. ‘'It is disappointing the way Abhisit has arisen to the top. It will come back to haunt him.'

The military stands to gain the most from the Democrat's latest triumph. ‘'Abhisit's victory has been tailored for the international community, because democratic rules are an international norm, not coups,' Thitinan told IPS. ‘'After the last coup the Thai leaders could not meet international leaders. The military does not want a repeat.'

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Albion Monitor   December 21, 2008   (

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