BANGKOK - LOYALISTS of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra met on Sunday to counter a sudden bid by the main opposition party to form a new government it says will lead Thailand out of political chaos.
The move comes after protesters recently paralysed the capital Bangkok and shut down its main international airport, stranding more than 300,000 travellers and dealing a heavy blow to the country's tourism-dependent economy.
The government was dissolved by a court order on Tuesday for election fraud. A number of members of ousted Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's People Power Party, who owe their allegiance to Thaksin, regrouped in a new one, the Pheua Thai Party.
Phuea Thai members selected Yongyuth Wichaidit, a former senior Interior Ministry official, on Sunday to head its ranks and grapple with the opposition Democrat Party for the job of prime minister.
The Democrat Party announced on Saturday it had mustered 260 lawmakers in the lower house, enough to form a government with Oxford-educated party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as the new prime minister.
The house has 400 members from single constituency elections and 80 party list members. At present, 441 seats are occupied with the remaining vacant, which means a coalition needs 221 members to form a government.
Surapong Tovichakchaikul, a Phuea Thai lawmaker, said the party can muster a coalition of at least 226 lawmakers. The counter-claims by the Democrats and Phuea Thai indicated that either party was exaggerating its strength, or some coalition members promised support to both sides.
The political wrangling, taking place during a still chaotic situation after Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport reopened on Friday, will not be resolved until Parliament meets within the next 30 days, and the two coalitions will have to prove their majority. No date has been set for the assembly.
The former ruling party said it would not give up the fight and warned of renewed violence.
'Right now the Democrat Party still can't form the government.
Things still haven't settled down. If Phuea Thai forms the government, the yellow-shirted people won't stop. They will come back,' said Chuvit Pitakpornpallop, a Phuea Thai Party MP referring to supporters of the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy who wear yellow clothing at demonstrations.
He said a government by the Democrats would in turn inflame the 'red shirts,' followers of his own party.
The Democrat Party is supported by the alliance, an activist group that headed mass demonstrations against several recent governments led by Thaksin and his allies. The protests culminated in a weeklong siege of the capital's two airports.
Democrat Party Secretary-General Suthep Thaugsuban told reporters that negotiations with the other parties had been 'the smoothest discussion' he has ever had because everyone realised the country's stability was at stake.
'This was the hardest decision we have made, but the country needs to move forward. We have to think of the country's survival and so we apologise to our MP friends and the people who support us, but we can't work with them anymore,' said Boonjong Wongtrairat, a representative of a faction of 37 MPs who defected from the government camp.
Sombat Chanthonwong, a political science professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University, said many would find it difficult to accept Abhisit as the new prime minister because he did not emerge from an electoral contest.
'How can we have a prime minister who doesn't come from a democratic process? I don't get it,' he said.
British-born Abhisit, 44, is an articulate, sophisticated politician but critics say he is out of touch with ordinary people, particularly the rural majority, and lacks charisma.
His party's supporters include Bangkok's middle class, influential military figures and foreign investors who see him as a stabilising force.
Thaksin is still popular among the rural masses, reflecting the deep divide between the urban elite and the country's poor.
The political developments came as the country's main international airport was being restored, although an airport public relations official said on Saturday it could be at least a month before traffic was back to normal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to speak to the media. -- AP
p/s photos: Amigi Feng Yuan Zhen