Thai opposition leader becomes prime minister

Supporters of previous government unsuccessfully try to halt result by blockading parliament.

Abhisit Vejjajiva 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Abhisit Vejjajiva 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Lawmakers chose an opposition leader as Thailand's prime minister Monday in a bid to end months of political chaos, as supporters of the previous government unsuccessfully tried to halt the result by blockading Parliament. The articulate, Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, who heads the Democrat Party, gathered 235 votes against 198 by former national police chief Pracha Promnok, a loyalist of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The lower house vote followed six months of instability caused by anti-government and anti-Thaksin demonstrations that culminated last month with a weeklong takeover of Bangkok's two airports. The selection of a new prime minister was expected to calm the country's politics, at least temporarily. However, several hundred Thaksin supporters tried to block the gates of Parliament in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the outcome. Riot police later cleared a path for lawmakers to leave the compound. The demonstrators surrounded vehicles and hurled abuse at lawmakers inside but most dispersed peacefully, saying that they would gather again later Monday in the capital's old historic section. Following the vote, Abhisit - at 44, one of the world's youngest heads of state - thanked fellow lawmakers and the public but said he would not talk about politics until he was officially endorsed as prime minister by the constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The chamber normally has 480 members, but because of vacancies currently numbers 437. One MP died on the eve of the voting. Despite Monday's protest outside Parliament, analysts foresee relative stability in coming months following political chaos and the airport siege which ended after a court ruling on Dec. 2 dissolved the ruling People's Power Party and two coalition partners. It also handed a five-year political ban to former premier Somchai Wongsawat, who is Thaksin's brother-in-law. The remnants of the PPP regrouped as the Phuea Thai Party, which were also seeking a majority in Monday's session. The anti-Thaksin protest movement seeks to purge politics of the influence of Thaksin - who was ousted by a 2006 coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power - and has threatened new but unspecified activities if Parliament elects a leader with links to him. "The Democrats are positioned to win this round. They seem to have the votes, the support of the private sector and the business community which hopes for temporary respite," said Sukhum Nuansakul, a political scientist at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University, shortly before the vote began. "But the peace is likely to be short-lived. The fundamental problem has not been resolved," Sukhum said. "A Democrat win sets the stage for another round of street protests, this time by pro-Thaksin groups." Thaksin now lives in exile, having fled Thailand ahead of an October conviction on a conflict of interest charge. But he continues to play an active role in politics, and Saturday night Thaksin gave a prerecorded video speech to a rally of more than 40,000 of his supporters who gathered at a stadium in central Bangkok. Thaksin decried inappropriate interference in the political process - a reference to the army's alleged intervention in favor of the Democrats - and denounced lawmakers who had been loyal to him but switched their allegiances. The army traditionally wields a great deal of influence in Thai politics. Thaksin, a former telecommunications magnate, is still supported by many in Thailand's impoverished countryside because of his populist policies during his six years in power. Democrat leader Abhisit told reporters Sunday that it was his party's "responsibility to offer another choice for the country when the former government has failed." He said his party would focus on national harmony and economic issues. Thailand's economy has taken a battering due to the global slowdown, a local climate of uncertainty and the seven-day stoppage of international flights that battered the country's essential tourism industry and stranded upward of 300,000 travelers. Some economists are predicting Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy will slip into recession next year.