After months of political instability, Thailand turned Monday to an untested, British-educated opposition leader to head a coalition government. Abhisit Vejjajiva – the third prime minister in four months – faces a stiff challenge in quelling political unrest, reviving a stricken economy, and keeping together a fractious coalition.
By a margin of 235 to 198 votes, the Thai Parliament chose Mr. Abhisit, leader of the Democrat Party, over a rival candidate aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A new cabinet is expected to be formed by next week. The last government collapsed on Dec. 2 after the constitutional court ordered three parties in the ruling coalition be disbanded for vote buying.
Abhisit has said his priorities are restoring the economy and rescuing a $17 billion tourist industry. Last month royalist protesters forced the week-long closure of two airports in Bangkok, defying an enfeebled government that was unable to muster support from the powerful military to restore order. The closures decimated tourist arrivals during the peak season. The protesters, known as the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), left the airports after the court ruling against the government.
While many Thais are weary of political fighting and want to see a firm hand on the economic till, few expect Abhisit's government to survive beyond six months. His coalition was bolted together under military pressure that induced pro-Thaksin lawmakers to cross the floor, but is beset by competing agendas and turf wars. Its majority may be further reduced in by-elections Jan. 11 to fill the seats of 26 disqualified lawmakers.
While the PAD has ended its protests, several hundred red-clad Thaksin loyalists clashed with police outside Parliament Monday. Some protesters attacked the cars of lawmakers who voted for Abhisit, in an echo of chaotic scenes in October involving thousands of yellow-clad PAD supporters who besieged the Parliament compound. Tit-for-tat violence between the two groups in recent months has raised fears of an all-out political conflict.
If Abhisit wants to restore international confidence in Thailand, he must end a culture of impunity for protest leaders and their followers, says Sunai Pasuk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Bangkok. "It's an issue of justice and impunity. The first task for the Democrat Party is to show that no one is above the law, whether they belong to the reds or the yellows," he says.
Born in Britain and educated at Eton – an elite school – and Oxford University, Abhisit is an polished orator who has tried to broaden his party's appeal since taking over as leader in 2005. Democrat Party lawmakers mostly represent Bangkok and southern Thailand.
By contrast, Mr. Thaksin built a support base in the populous north and northeast of the country that has proven durable in successive elections. He is living in exile and has been found guilty in absentia of abusing his powers, but supporters dismiss the courts as biased.