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December 15, 2008

Thailand Political Stalemate:
Oppoition leader elected prime minister

Thailand's main opposition party took power Monday as Parliament after its Oxford-educated leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was elected as the country's 27th prime minister, which came in the wake of mass protests that paralysed the government for months, reported BBC, the Associated Press and other agencies.

Abhisit Vejjajiva becomes the country's fifth leader in a little over two years, winning the vote by 235 to 198 in parliament. The House of Representatives normally has 480 members, but because of vacancies currently has 438 members.

The previous Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was forced to resign by a court ruling earlier this month. The court found his party, the People Power Party (PPP), guilty of fraud during the last election a year ago, and banned it and two other parties in the governing coalition.

They have now regrouped under new names, but the opposition Democrat Party has won over enough defectors and unaligned MPs to win support.

Thailand has been in political deadlock for months as anti-government protesters have mounted a campaign to remove the governing party.

They accused the PPP of being a proxy for Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

The protest culminated in a week-long occupation of Bangkok's main international airport that left 300,000 foreign tourists stranded.

The opposition called off its action after the recent decision by the constitutional court to disband the PPP.

The Democrat Party, which has not been in power for eight years, was confident it has the support of enough lawmakers to elect Abhisit as the next prime minister.

But parties loyal to the legacy of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra also claim to have enough votes to name their candidate, former national police chief Pracha Promnok, to the top spot.

The remnants of the PPP, which regrouped as the Phuea Thai Party, sought but failed to find a majority in Monday's session.

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. 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 Saturday night.

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.

The speech had been ballyhooed in advance as a last-ditch effort to rally support ahead of the parliamentary session but it had no evident effect on the political balance.

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.

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