Some Respite For Thailand

AP: Thailand's opposition Democrat Party said Saturday it has gathered enough support to form a new government, raising hopes that the country can emerge from a paralyzing six-month political crisis.

Democrat Party Secretary-General Suthep Thaugsuban gathered with other Thai members of Parliament for a meeting Dec. 6 in Bangkok.

Party Secretary-General Suthep Thaugsuban announced that his party has the backing of 260 lawmakers in Parliament's 400-seat lower house, giving it a majority and allowing it to form a government.

But given the chaos of recent months and deep political and social rifts, the apparent Democrat triumph will not be assured until Parliament meets within the next 30 days to vote on whether to endorse party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as the new prime minister.

An activist group, the People's Alliance for Democracy, has spearheaded mass demonstrations against several recent governments led by exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies which culminated in a weeklong siege of the capital's two airports.

The Democrat Party remained on the sidelines of the protests, but sided with the alliance.

The sudden rise of the opposition party came amid anxiety over the illness of 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, regarded as a cornerstone of stability, and fears that a new prime minister close to Mr. Thaksin could again ignite mass protests.

Mr. Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire who was ousted by a 2006 military coup for alleged pervasive corruption and abuse of power, remains at the center of the country's instability.

Politicians who switched from the pro-Thaksin camp to the Democrats said they did so because the outgoing government was clearly unable to run the country.

"All parties agreed that this is the best way for tackling the national crisis. We have selected the best choice for Thailand," said Ranongrak Suwanchawee from the Phrua Phendin party, one of four in the former ruling coalition to join the opposition.

Thailand Seeks a Way Out

As political unrest has grown in recent months, Thailand's economy has suffered.

Mr. Abhisit, 44, born and educated in England, 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 stabilizing force.

Friday's official reopening of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi international airport, still partially crippled after the siege by anti-government protesters, had raised hopes Thailand was emerging from the chaos of the past months. However, many Thais were also following with trepidation the health of the revered monarch. The palace announced Friday night that the king was suffering from an inflamed throat and fever after he failed to give his annual birthday address.

The siege of the capital's two airports by the protest alliance trapped more than 300,000 travelers and dealt a heavy blow to the country's tourism-dependent economy. Suvarnabhumi was operating at only about 50% capacity Friday. An airport public relations official said operations were stepped up Saturday, but it could be at least a month before all flights were back to normal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

A number of members of ousted Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's People Power Party have regrouped in a new party, Pheua Thai, which called an emergency meeting Saturday evening when it learned that some of its members were switching to the Democrat camp, The Nation newspaper said on its Web site. It quoted a former People Power Party member as saying 37 of the party's lawmakers would support the Democrat Party in its effort to lead a coalition.

Thaksin and his ex-wife, a highly influential figure during his years in power, are hated by many of the country's elite, who charge that they were trying to usurp royal authority. Their November divorce is widely regarded as a ploy to reduce their individual legal liabilities and preserve the family fortune.

But Mr. Thaksin is still popular among the rural masses, reflecting the deep divide between the urban elite and the country's poor.

Friday night's celebrations of King Bhumibol's birthday -- marked by fireworks and crowds of people holding candles -- were dampened by the news of his illness. The king's traditional birthday remarks had been eagerly anticipated this year because of sharpening social and regional divisions fostered by the militant campaign to purge the country of Mr. Thaksin's influence.

The monarch has historically been the country's sole unifying figure in times of crisis. The protesters have repeatedly claimed defense of the throne as one of their motivations.

p/s photos: Kou Shibasaki


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