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December 14, 2008

Thailand Political Stalemate:
Tension rises on eve of crucial PM vote

Thailand was wracked by tensions Sunday on the eve of a vote for a new prime minister, after former leader Thaksin Shinawatra weighed in from exile to demand an end to army interference in politics, reported AFP.

MPs are due on Monday to choose Thailand's third premier in four months, with opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva set to win after the pro-Thaksin government was toppled by a court order and then hit by a series of defections.

But billionaire Thaksin, who was deposed in a military coup in 2006, told 50,000 supporters in a video address late Saturday that there would be no end to Thailand's political strife if the generals keep meddling.

"At the moment the army is interfering... Those people who interfere in forming the government must stop and withdraw," he said in the pre-recorded video shown at Bangkok's National Stadium, before cancelling a live phone-in.

Thaksin, who is living in an undisclosed foreign location to dodge graft charges, said the military was behind the defection of former ruling coalition lawmakers who have now backed British-born Democrat party leader Abhisit.

His words were cheered by so-called "Thaksinistas" who waved heart-shaped clappers and wore red shirts that have become the symbol of support for the ex-PM.

Police say they will have around 1,200 officers on duty outside parliament for the special session on Monday in case of protests by Thaksin supporters. They say the army will be called in if there are any clashes.

The political manoeuvres follow six months of protests by the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which peaked with a week-long blockade of Bangkok's airports beginning in late November, which left 350,000 passengers stranded.

The turmoil has badly hit Thailand's economy at a time when it is also starting to feel the pinch from the global financial crisis, with economic growth forecast at just two per cent next year.

The PAD ended the airport siege after a court on December 2 dissolved the ruling People Power Party and handed a five-year political ban to then-premier Somchai Wongsawat, who is Thaksin's brother-in-law.

Thaksin's allies have since regrouped in the newly-formed Puea Thai (For Thais) party and insist that they can still form a government when MPs vote on Monday. They have not, however, named a prime ministerial candidate.

Puea Thai leaders initially looked set to return to power under their new political name but last week suffered a major blow when some of the party's former members defected to the opposition Democrats along with members of four smaller parties.

Thaksin issued a warning on Saturday to the defectors.

"People know they will be punished," he said.

Puea Thai has previously blamed the political manoeuvring on army chief General Anupong Paojinda, who during the airport crisis urged Somchai to call snap elections and refused to send the military in to clear the protesters.

Behind Thailand's political machinations lie a growing divide between Thaksin's support base among the rural and urban poor -- especially in his native northern Thailand -- and the country's Bangkok-based establishment.

Thaksin, who won elections in 2001 and 2006, alienated elements in the palace, military and bureaucracy with his populist policies and was accused by the PAD of trying to damage Thailand's revered monarchy.

The PAD claimed the support of Queen Sikirit when she attended the funeral in October of a protester killed in a clash with police in Bangkok. It accused the last government of being Thaksin's corrupt puppet administration.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, traditionally looked to by Thais for guidance in times of difficulty, has meanwhile been silent on the crisis, cancelling his regular birthday eve speech earlier this month after falling ill.

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