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December 9, 2008

Thailand Political Stalemate:
Parties locked in fierce struggle for power

Thailand's opposition party on Monday called a special parliament session to prove it has the backing to form a government with its leader at the helm, but the former ruling party refused to back down, reported the AFP.

Senior opposition Democrat Party members said they would nominate their 44-year-old leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as prime minister, as the nation reels from months of protests and political paralysis.

The Democrats say they have wooed four smaller parties away from the former ruling People Power Party (PPP), which was aligned with controversial ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The PPP was dissolved by a court last week and prime minister Somchai Wongsawat forced from office, but Thaksin's allies have regrouped in the Puea Thai (For Thais) party and insist they can still muster the support to govern.

The fierce power struggle comes after the November 25 to December 3 blockade of Bangkok's main airport by a royalist anti-government protest group, which brought Thailand to a standstill and badly dented the nation's image abroad.

"The Democrat Party is confident that it will form the government, even if there are pressures against MPs who support the Democrats to switch their support to Puea Thai," Abhisit told reporters.

The party's secretary general Suthep Tuagsuban said he was confident of the support of nearly two-thirds of the 447 lawmakers in the lower house.

House Speaker Chai Chidchob confirmed he had received a letter requesting an emergency session, signed by 242 parliamentarians. Veteran Democrat MP Akom Angchuan said the house could convene between December 12 and 26.

Representatives from the small parties have confirmed they have switched sides but last-minute horse trading could see allegiances change -- something that Puea Thai is banking on to hang on to power.

"It will not be clear until the MPs announce in parliament who they will vote for," Vittaya Buranasiri, a senior Puea Thai member, said on Thai television.

A pro-Thaksin group, meanwhile, accused Thailand's powerful army of steering the coalition partners to the Democrats, and said they were still mulling whether to protest outside parliament when it meets to name a new premier.

"We will not object if Abhisit becomes prime minister through a democratic process, but we will if it is because the army is backing him," said Jatuporn Prompan, also a Puea Thai parliamentarian.

Army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkunmerd confirmed that the army chief had spoken to politicians, but said the army would not interfere.

The closure of Bangkok's two airports left up to 350,000 passengers marooned in the kingdom. Analysts warn that the demonstrations could force Thai economic growth down to about two or three percent in 2009.

The People's Alliance for Democracy began its campaign in May to oust the government elected in December 2007, accusing it of being a puppet of Thaksin, who was toppled in a 2006 coup and lives abroad to avoid corruption charges.

In August the PAD stormed and occupied the prime minister's Government House cabinet offices, which were finally cleaned up and reopened on Monday.

The sieges of Suvarnabhumi international airport and the smaller Don Mueang hub ended last Wednesday after a court disbanded the PPP, but activists have vowed to return to the streets if they do not approve of the new premier.

The most likely candidate at the moment is Oxford-educated Abhisit, who failed to win over Thaksin's rural supporters in the general elections a year ago but is believed to have the backing of the kingdom's old elite.

Puea Thai has not yet named its candidate for prime minister.

Thaksin was despised by elements in the palace, military and bureaucracy -- from which the PAD draws much of its support -- who felt their power was undermined by his support in the populous countryside.

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