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Thailand's PM fights uphill reelection battle

Polls suggest that Thailand's opposition Puea Thai Party (PTP), which is loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and led by his sister, will win the largest share in a divisive July 3 parliamentary vote.

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Abhisit touts the economy

On the streets of Bangkok, which may tip the balance in the tight race, Abhisit has been campaigning on his economic record during two-and-a-half years in office, and his plans for future development. Thailand’s economy is forecast to grow this year by 4 percent after an export-led rebound from a 2009 recession that was exacerbated by political instability.

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On a recent afternoon, Abhisit greeted market vendors along a congested lane in the sprawling capital, a yellow flower garland draped over his powder-blue shirt. Inside a community center, he met former drug addicts and spoke at length about his plans to tackle illegal drugs, before donning a soccer jersey and playing a quick game with the former addicts and other youth.

Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, the local candidate in the district, said the prime minister’s visit would energize Democrat Party supporters in a closely fought contest. “Abhisit has a lot of fans,” she says.

While all parties offer broadly similar economic policies, Abhisit has repeatedly attacked PTP for proposing a political amnesty bill that he says would benefit Thaksin and drag the country back into further conflict. Thaksin was convicted in absentia in 2009 of abusing his power while in office and ordered to serve two years in jail. He says the case was politically motivated.

Speaking to foreign correspondents, Abhisit framed the election as a contest of policy ideas that his opponents were ducking. “I wish they’d come straight out and compete with us on how to run the country… The people’s priorities are economic and social concerns,” he said during an hour-long interview.

Vote 'No'?

Abhisit also faces a challenge from the Democrat Party’s flanks. The ultra-conservative People’s Alliance for Democracy, which staged mass anti-Thaksin protests in 2006 and 2008, are running a Vote No campaign that urges voters to spoil their ballots. The group has put up colorful posters of animals dressed in suits to represent unworthy politicians. Abhisit admitted that the campaign could hurt them if it peels away their supporters.

Among the most contentious issues in the campaign is last year’s bloodshed in Bangkok, the worst political violence in a generation. The two main parties have traded accusations of who was to blame for chaotic protests that shut down parts of the city for several weeks. While PTP candidates have attacked the government’s response as heavy handed, Democrat Party officials have defended their actions and criticized PTP for promoting protest leaders accused of instigating the violence.

Last May, Abhisit appointed an independent fact-finding committee into the violence. Committee members have complained of obstruction by both military officials and red-shirt leaders, and have proven unable to shed much light on what happened, to the frustration of relatives of the dead and injured, including medics, bystanders, and reporters caught in the crossfire. Human rights groups say Abhisit, who took power with military support, appears unable and unwilling to bring soldiers to account.

Speaking to foreign correspondents, Abhisit said that he was frustrated with the slow pace of investigations. “We make sure that all the government personnel and agencies cooperate. I hope that the red shirts’ people will do the same,” he said.

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