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Thai Prime Minister Abhisit interview: 'We're a government that can maintain order'

Confounding his critics, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit, who took office a year ago, has faced down challenges from opponents and stifled antigovernment unrest. But protesters are gearing up for more disruption.

By Correspondent / January 12, 2010

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva greets Thai Muslim women during his visit to the southern Thai province of Yala on January 7.

Surapan Boonthanom/Reuters

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Bangkok, Thailand

When Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came to office just over a year ago, few expected him to stay long. His two predecessors had been toppled by royalist protests and controversial court rulings. Concerns were rising that Thailand, a longtime US ally, was becoming dangerously divided and ungovernable.

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Since then, Mr. Abhisit has consolidated his political base. He has faced down sharp challenges from his opponents, including antigovernment unrest last April that saw armed troops retake the streets of Bangkok. In recent months, the battered economy has revived, buoyed by stimulus programs and a tentative sense of normalcy.

But street protesters aligned to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a coup in 2006 and lives in exile, are gearing up for more disruption. A protest was held Monday outside Bangkok. The ruling coalition has also been rocked by a Health Ministry corruption scandal.

Bridging political divide?

Still, Mr. Abhisit, leader of the Democrat Party, seems determined to stay the course. He says that his administration has governed effectively for Thais across the political divide.

The political divisions “are still there,” he says, in an interview. “But we’ve shown that we’re a government that can maintain order, can get other policies done, even long-term policies on welfare issues, and do this while respecting the rights of the political opposition,” he says.

Critics say that Abhisit remains in power because of his powerful backers, principally military commanders who were at loggerheads with the previous administration and refused to put down a royalist airport siege in 2008. By clinging to power, Abhisit reinforces the perception that a partisan establishment has undermined the democratic process, these critics say.

Were parliamentary elections to be held today, pro-Thaksin forces are favored to win, though not by an absolute majority, according to political analysts and Western diplomats. Such a result, a virtual rerun of the 2007 elections, could spark further turmoil along ideological and class lines.

“I think Abhisit and his party are afraid of elections. If we have elections, Thaksin’s party will win, without any doubts. Thais feel that Thaksin is the underdog and hasn’t been treated fairly,” says Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent social activist.

Abhisit says that he won’t dissolve parliament until he is sure that fair and orderly elections can be held. A parliamentary committee has tabled proposals to amend six constitutional clauses that would be put to a popular referendum. He accuses the opposition Puea Thai party, which is loyal to Thaksin and favors a return to Thailand’s 1997 constitution, of scuttling the reforms.

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