Thai Prime Minister 298.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Thailand's embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra abruptly announced Tuesday he will step down from office, bowing to a mounting opposition campaign seeking his ouster over allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
Thaksin's announcement came shortly after he met with the country's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, at his seaside palace in southern Hua Hin.
"I am sorry that I will not accept the premier post," Thaksin said during a brief televised speech. "We have no time to quarrel ... I want to see Thai people unite and forget what has happened."
Thaksin, a telecommunications magnate who swept to power in a landslide in 2001, said he would remain in a caretaker role until a successor is chosen, adding that his replacement would be chosen once parliament resumes within the next 30 days.
It is unclear what role the king played in his decision, though Thaksin mentioned in his speech that scores of world leaders would be coming to Thailand in two months for the 60th anniversary of the king's accession to the throne.
The announcement comes as election results earlier this week showed Thaksin's popularity had plummeted and opposition forces were gearing to resume their anti-government protests. Opponents commended Thaksin for stepping aside but said he needed to do more to close the political rift dividing the country.
"I think it shows good intentions on the part of the prime minister to resolve the conflict right," said Sanan Kachornprasat, whose Mahachon party was one of three to boycott the election. "Apart from making his announcement, he has to show that he is willing to work with everyone right away."
Thaksin's exit under popular pressure was the second in the past decade and a half, but this time it came about without bloodshed. In 1992, demonstrators against a military strongman were gunned down before the king stepped in to end the bloodshed, and usher in a period of stable democracy.
In his speech Tuesday, the 56-year-old Thaksin insisted he had done his best for the country.
"As for many things that I have been accused of, this prime minister has never thought of doing anything wrong or evil to the country," he said. "I think I have done my best. If there is an opportunity in the future to explain my actions, people may have a clearer understanding."
Thaksin's party won 57 percent of Sunday's parliamentary election, according to preliminary results, but scores of voters abstained, including a majority in the capital, Bangkok.
Thaksin's critics - who for two months have been staging rallies drawing as many as 100,000 people - rejected the prime minister's idea of a reconciliation committee as insincere and called for new anti-government protests this week.
The main opposition parties boycotted Sunday's poll, leaving Thaksin's ruling Thai Rak Thai - Thai Love Thai - party uncontested in 278 of 400 constituencies for the lower house of Parliament.
The boycott left 38 constituencies undecided, because the sole candidate in each race failed to win a required 20 percent of the vote, according to the unofficial results.
The rest of the seats in Parliament would go to the ruling party except one, which went to a candidate from an obscure party in the south, unofficial results showed.
Partial results showed a record high number of abstention ballots in Bangkok, where the anti-Thaksin movement is strongest, and in southern Thailand, which is traditionally a stronghold of the opposition Democrat Party. But the ruling party was expected to sweep the north and northeast where rural voters have benefited from Thaksin's generous social welfare and economic assistance programs.
Thaksin had previously said he would step down if his party won less than 50 percent of the vote.
Thaksin's announcement late Tuesday was particularly surprising given that he said on national television just one day before that he saw no reason to resign since results showed that his party had won 16 million votes. Nonetheless, he acknowledged the strong protest vote.
The political opposition against Thaksin gained mass support in January when the prime minister's family announced it had sold its controlling stake in telecommunications company Shin Corp. to Singapore's state-owned Temasek Holdings for a tax-free $1.9 billion.
Critics allege the sale involved insider trading and complain a key national asset is now in a foreign government's hands. Thaksin is also accused of stifling the media and mishandling a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand.