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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.

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“I thought we’d agreed on a set of rules until Thaksin called it off. That suggests the problem is not with us, it’s with Thaksin,” says Abhisit, speaking after a weekly live broadcast on state TV.

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Born and educated in the UK, Abhisit rose rapidly through his party’s ranks and took over in 2005 after an election defeat. He is among Thailand’s youngest-ever political leaders and is popular among Bangkok’s moneyed classes and star-struck women.

But his boyish good looks and educated patina aren’t necessarily a calling card in Thailand’s political culture, says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist for the pro-Abhisit Nation daily. Other Thai media have criticized him as too reserved and ineffectual, in contrast to politicians schooled in roughhouse tactics.

Mr. Sulak says Abhisit is a clean, respectable leader who lacks conviction. “He’s a nice boy.… But he has no guts, no moral courage. He just plays along with the game to survive,” he says.

Nonetheless, Mr. Kavi argues that his hold on power appears secure. “I didn’t expect him to last this long. Now I think he will last until the end,” he says.

That could mean Abhisit staying until the end of 2011, when parliament’s four-year tenure ends. His opponents say that would be undemocratic, as he lacks a popular mandate and was installed in dubious circumstances. Abhisit says he was chosen by a majority of MPs and is a legitimate prime minister.

He also pushes back against critics who call him beholden to the military, pointing to the lifting of martial law last month in four districts in the Muslim-dominated south, where a shadowy insurgency has raged since 2004. Military commanders have tried to resist curbs on their powers to round up suspects and to control lucrative development budgets in southern hot spots.

“These are clear policies made by politicians,” says Abhisit, referring to his southern strategy. Asked if elected civilians had full control over Thai security forces, he replied, “close” to it.

A wildcard in Thailand’s fractured politics is the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch. He has been in hospital since last September to treat a lung infection. As a constitutional monarch, Bhumibol wields limited formal power but in practice has been highly influential and a unifying figure in Thai politics, making his departure a pivotal event.

Many Thais fear that a royal succession could be destabilizing for the country as the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is unpopular, though such concerns are rarely aired in public due to strict laws. Pro-Thaksin factions have publicly challenged the politicking of palace factions, including their endorsement of the 2006 coup.

Abhisit says he understands public concerns over the monarch’s eventual passing. “I think it’s inevitably going to be a very anxious and difficult time ... but Thai society must rise up to the challenge,” he says.