Thai leader bows out, for now

Thaksin Shinawatra may yet play major role, as opposition keeps wary eye on the reforms ahead.

The fate of Thailand's embattled prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has yet to settled. After he agreed Tuesday to step down for the sake of national unity following Sunday's disputed elections, demonstrators have packed up their tents and headed home. But many are still pushing for a full investigation into whether rules were bent to favor Mr. Thaksin's family businesses.

That seems unlikely as long as his Thai Rak Thai Party, of which he remains the leader, remains in power. Thaksin has tapped a temporary prime minister until the new parliament forms, but no successor has been named for the leader who has defined Thai politics over the last five years.

Thailand is watching to see how its young democracy handles a political schism that has exposed the weakness of the institutions created in 1997 to safeguard a new constitution and adjudicate disputes. Instead, a compromise reached behind closed doors, and approved by revered King Bhumipol, has left open the possibility of Thaksin's return while leaving his supporters wondering why exactly their leader had to quit.

"In a democracy, we have to accept the majority. But how do you explain a man who won 16 million votes and has to step down in respect to a protest vote?" says Tanet Charoenmuang, a political scientist at Chiang Mai University and an informal government adviser. "This is not a normal democracy."

The protest vote in Sunday's election followed a decision by three opposition parties not to field candidates. Instead, they persuaded voters to mark "No Vote" on the ballot.

The result was a lower turnout, a reduced vote for the ruling party, and a surge in spoiled ballots as disgruntled voters vented their anger by scrawling anti-Thaksin graffiti. In Bangkok, where protests in the weeks leading up to the ballot attracted as many as 100,000 mostly middle-class residents, the "No Vote" was the winner.

"It doesn't feel good. It doesn't feel good at all," admits Jakrapop Penkhair, a Thai Rak Thai MP in Bangkok. "[But] I believe the election was legitimate and that's why I competed."

Despite the backlash, a majority of 28.7 million voters backed Thaksin. That wasn't enough, though, to counter Bangkok's strident rejection or the threat of further unrest.

By Tuesday, Thaksin had swung from bravado over the result to a statesmanlike contrition. Choking with emotion, he went on TV to call on Thailand to end the political fighting and unite in time for the 60th anniversary in June of the king's coronation. "There is no more time to quarrel. I want to see all Thai citizens throughout the country united and forget what has happened," he said.

Analysts say Thaksin's decision averted the risk of violence that had loomed over the mass protests threatened after the election. In his speech, Thaksin referred to the 1992 political crisis, when the king intervened after troops massacred protesters. This time, Thailand's Army, which has a long history of coups, stayed out of the fray, to the relief of many politicians.

Constitutional hurdles remain to forming a new government, though. The opposition boycott of the election left 39 districts in Thailand without MPs as single-party candidates failed to win at least 20 percent of the eligible vote. Reruns will be held April 23, but without competing parties the result may be inconclusive. Some observers have also questioned the legitimacy of a parliament with only one opposition MP elected so far.

Thai Rak Thai officials say that the 500- member parliament, when it eventually sits, will focus on overseeing political reforms and hold fresh elections within 15 months. An independent commission will be given the task of overhauling the Constitution Its challenge is to untangle the weakness of Thailand's constitutional bodies, such as its moribund anticorruption agency, from the overbearing strength of the executive branch that Thaksin transformed during his tenure.

Previous prime ministers were often reluctant to take on influential state bureaucrats or assert their control over provincial leaders. Thaksin had few qualms about instilling his brand of corporate management in the corridors of power and using outside experts to counter bureaucrats. He also scolded Thai journalists for not putting the national interest first, and was dismissive of independent agencies monitoring an elected government.

Critics argue that it's possible to balance the desire for decisive leadership with the need for accountability. "We have no problem with strong political leaders. But we can't accept a head of government who abuses his power to control the courts, the media, and the anticorruption commission. That's not democracy," says Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrat Party.

Thaksin's ambiguous departure could spell only a temporary relief to the polarized debate over his leadership. Some observers believe that the politicking could start again in a few months.

"It's not over. Thaksin is still a force to be reckoned with. He's still around," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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