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Thailand: Bland, Squeaky Clean, Yuppie Becomes PM

A Bland, Squeaky Clean, Yuppie Politician Becomes Prime Minister


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Abhisit Vejjajiva, a bland, squeaky clean, yuppie politician who failed to win a national election, was chosen as prime minister on Monday, boosted by the military and Bangkok's elite after his opposition party formed a shaky coalition majority in Parliament.

Abhisit Vejjajiva is expected to lead this polarized Southeast Asian, U.S. military ally toward an investment-friendly future, and mop up after last month's political chaos which stranded more than 300,000 travelers when protesters blockaded Bangkok's airports.

Educated at Eton and Oxford, Mr. Abhisit is widely perceived as so lofty, elitist and lacking charisma, that critics joke that he needs a visa to enter Thailand's impoverished northeast and other rural areas, where most voters live.

Mr. Abhisit -- his name means "privilege" -- and his Democrat Party lost the last nationwide general election in 2007.

He was an opposition Parliamentarian for nearly 17 years and is widely considered to be honest, earnest, handsome and well-educated.

As a result, Mr. Abhisit is favored by the business community, diplomatic corps, and among Thailand's intellectuals, academia, middle class, military, media and royalists.

He was born into a well-off Thai family in Newcastle, England. At 44, he is Thailand's youngest prime minister.

Mr. Abhisit's allies chaperoned key Parliamentarians to sequestered hotels and cars, to ensure they would vote for him in Parliament on Monday (December 15).

Mr. Abhisit won 235 seats against 198 votes for former ruling politicians led by their recently formed Puea Thai Party, or Party for Thais.

They hastily nominated former national police chief Pracha Promnok as their hapless candidate.

Some politicians were allegedly wooed with cash to vote one way or another.

"There were cash rewards, and cabinet posts, offered to those who could retrieve defecting Members of Parliament," who ditched the government's ruling coalition, Democrat Party Secretary-General Suthep Thaugsuban said.

Mr. Abhisit now needs to "restore the country from crisis, to bring back confidence among investors and tourists," Mr. Suthep said.

After Mr. Abhisit lured several politicians his side, they "were not permitted to carry mobile phones, or use telephones...to further limit their chances of coming into contact with money" which might tempt them away, the Bangkok Post said.

An editorial cartoon published on Wednesday (December 10) showed a rogue politician smiling while both sides offered bags of money and "seats".

The caption read: "Money before ethics?"

After he won, dozens of angry loyalists of the current government donned red shirts and hurled rocks at departing vehicles carrying politicians from Parliament, smashing some windows and injuring reporters.

Mr. Abhisit endorsed the existing government's "populist" benefits, such as cheap health care, while promising to announce his own unique ideas.

During the past 10 years, his Democrat Party never mustered enough votes to rule.

The last time the Democrat Party won the prime ministry was in 1992 when Chuan Leekpai, a lawyer, achieved power and led a lackluster coalition until Thailand's devastating economic crash in 1997.

Mr. Abhisit's rise improved thanks to a bloodless military coup in 2006.

That putsch ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, a thrice-elected prime minister who fell in disgrace after allegations of corruption and extra-judicial killings.

After the military's 15-month-long junta, Mr. Thaksin's political allies twice won enough votes to form new governments.

But Thailand's judicial system pushed his two favored prime ministers from office, including rude, bumbling Samak Sundaravej and polite, soft-spoken Somchai Wongsawat.

Since August, anti-government mobs wearing royalist-inspired yellow shirts began protests which gridlocked Parliament and, more recently, Bangkok's international and domestic airports.

Cloaking themselves under a People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) banner, the yellow shirts demanded an end to Mr. Thaksin's ability to keep his allies in power.

The PAD also called for the destruction of Thailand's one-man one- vote system, because the rural majority favored Mr. Thaksin's candidates.

The PAD insisted poor people were too ignorant, and easily bribed, to be allowed to vote, and Thailand should instead be ruled mostly by appointed individuals.

Mr. Abhisit recently called for King Bhumibol Adulyadej to name an unelected prime minister, but the constitutional monarch declined.

The king is to endorse Mr. Abhisit as prime minister within several days.

Critics said Mr. Abhisit's rise was a "silent coup" orchestrated by Thailand's politicized, U.S.-backed military which used the yellow shirts to destabilize the government and intimidate supporters.

"At the moment the army is interfering," Mr. Thaksin said on Saturday (December 13), speaking from self-exile as an international fugitive dodging a jail sentence for corruption.

"We are still under a military coup...They have used the court to crack down on politicians," he said.

Mr. Thaksin was apparently referring to court convictions against himself, his recently divorced wife, Thailand's two previous prime ministers, and a slew of other politicians who have been barred from office for five years for electoral fraud.

In addition to hostility from the pro-Thaksin red shirts, some analysts predicted possible problems from the PAD's yellow shirts, because the PAD's leaders were not immediately given positions in Mr. Abhisit's new cabinet.

The PAD's supporters include "the so-called 'traditional royalist elite', a great number from the middle and professional classes of Bangkok," and others, said Priyanandana Rangsit, a Senator who traces her ancestry to King Chulalongkorn's reign 100 years ago.

"Support for the PAD movement originated from middle-class taxpayers who hated seeing their taxes being squandered on the populist policies of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to keep himself and his party in power," she said.

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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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