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Economist wins Thai premiership

Abhisit Vejjajiva outmaneuvers a rival in parliament who belonged to the former ruling coalition.

December 15, 2008|Paul Watson | Watson is a Times staff writer.

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Thailand's parliament elected an Oxford-educated economist as prime minister today, shifting power from allies of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected, 235 to 198, over Pracha Promnok, the only other candidate in the 437-member National Assembly. Pracha heads the For Thais party, a member of the pro-Thaksin coalition that was forced out of office by court order this month.

Thaksin supporters, most of whom come from rural areas of Thailand's poorly developed north and northeast, called it "a judicial coup."

Half a year of street demonstrations by backers of Abhisit and others in the anti-Thaksin camp led to the weeklong seizure of Bangkok's two airports last month, which stranded about 300,000 tourists and cost the Thai economy tens of millions of dollars a day.

Immediately after Abhisit's victory was announced, Thai television broadcast images of angry protesters wearing the red shirts of the pro-Thaksin camp surging against police barricades outside parliament. They had threatened to prevent members of parliament from leaving the building.

Abhisit, 44, was born in England, where his parents were working as professors of medicine. He has a master's degree in economics from Oxford University, which could prove useful as a worsening global recession batters Thailand's economy.

In the final hours before the vote, rival parties were twisting arms and reportedly offering lucrative cash incentives in an effort to herd members of parliament into a winning coalition.

Supporters of Thaksin were reported to have offered bribes to lawmakers backing Abhisit if they called in sick and skipped the vote.

The Democrat Party's whips countered by rounding up members of parliament from outside Bangkok and cloistering them in a hotel Sunday night to prevent the opposition from luring away votes.

Thaksin was toppled in a bloodless 2006 coup and was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison on corruption charges. He tried to rally supporters from self-exile Sunday in a videotaped message in which he warned the military and royalists not to meddle in the election.

Military commanders worked behind the scenes to help forge the new governing coalition, according to news reports.

Thaksin's opponents say the cellphone tycoon continues to manipulate politicians in his camp.

Thaksin's former wife, Potjaman Shinawatra, who faces a three-year prison sentence for tax evasion, returned to Bangkok this month. Although Potjaman said she had returned to face the charges so that she could care for her ill mother, the timing raised suspicions that she was doing some political cajoling on behalf of her ex-husband.

Thaksin and his wife divorced after 32 years of marriage last month, just weeks after they were convicted on the corruption charges.

Many Thais view the divorce as another attempt by Thaksin to dodge authorities because most of his assets are in his wife's name.

Thailand's Constitutional Court forced Monday's vote by issuing a ruling Dec. 2 in which it dissolved three parties in the former governing coalition and banned Somchai Wongsawat, who was serving as prime minister, from politics for five years.

The ruling stemmed from convictions for vote buying in elections a year ago.

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paul.watson@latimes.com

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