Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in Bangkok November 23, 2009. Vejjajiva may have survived longer than expected, but a year after taking office, with a political crisis still unresolved, the future of his fractious government remains uncertain. REUTERS/Kerek Wongsa/Files
(CAAI News Media)
Tue Dec 22, 2009
By Martin Petty
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva may have survived longer than expected, but a year after taking office, with a political crisis still unresolved, the future of his fractious government remains uncertain.
The charismatic, Oxford and Eton-educated premier has succeeded in lifting the country out of its first recession in 11 years, but doubts remain as to whether he has the leadership and backing of his allies to steer Thailand out of trouble.
Opinion polls suggest the public remains lukewarm about his government's performance and Thai businesses have rated it 5.3 out of 10 for its handling of the economy, which Abhisit has championed as his coalition's biggest achievement.
But what continues to be the thorn in the side for Abhisit is coup-ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who has orchestrated a succession of mass "red shirt" protests by his mostly rural supporters, combined with attacks from the opposition Puea Thai party he backs from exile.
A provocative alliance with neighbouring Cambodia, which has refused to extradite Thaksin to serve a prison sentence for abusing his power, has also created a diplomatic row that has embarrassed the government and appears to have handed a public relations victory to the wily billionaire.
Some analysts say that despite showing restraint in dealing with the Cambodia spat, his efforts to silence, sideline and seek the extradition of the twice-elected Thaksin could be Abhisit's undoing.
"The government is giving (Thaksin) the valuable communication space to remind people of his accomplishments which further reinforces the perception of government incompetence," Suranand Vejjajiva, a former member of Thaksin's cabinet, now a political analyst, wrote in the Bangkok Post.
"The Cambodian fiasco is another example of a one-track foreign policy, sacrificing everything for the sake of one man."
In a television interview on Monday, Abhisit admitted he had been unable to tackle the political crisis, which he said would not be solved by another election, which the "red shirts" are demanding as part of what they say is a pro-democracy push.
Many analysts say the government's problems go beyond Thaksin. Bitter rivalry remains between Abhisit's Democrat Party and Bhumjai Thai, the second-biggest partner in an uneasy military-brokered coalition fraught with bickering and internal power struggles from the outset.
Also hanging over Abhisit's head is a bloody insurgency in the country's Muslim south, a corruption scandal in a healthcare project relating to the government's $42 billion stimulus package and the possibility of Democrat Party dissolution over alleged irregularities in a $7.8 million campaign donation in 2005.
Another setback is a court suspension of 65 of 76 projects, worth an estimated $8 billion, at the Map Ta Phut industrial estate, the world's eighth-biggest petrochemicals hub, over a failure to carry out health impact assessments (HIA).
The government has been blamed for failing to set up an independent body to oversee the HIA's in line with the 2007 constitution, and some industry experts say the process could drag on as long as a year, affecting profits, GDP and dealing a big blow to investor confidence.
All these issues are likely to be highlighted next month, when Thaksin's supporters plan a big push in parliament and in the streets to unseat Abhisit, who has had to cancel numerous visits to Thaksin strongholds in the North and northeast because of fears for his personal safety.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said the government had failed to seize the opportunity to win the support of Thailand's rural masses and was dismissive of the grievances of the "red shirts".
Massive stimulus measures, he said, were in place only because of the global economic crisis, to boost economic revival rather than address economic disparity and marginalisation of the rural poor.
"The stimulus measures were for the wrong reason and they have not captured hearts and minds," Thitinan said.
"The government rejects the red shirts as Thaksin lackeys and that's a reason Thailand can't find peace. Because of this marginalisation, there's no reconciliation.
"This is about more than Thaksin," he added. "If he vanished tomorrow, I doubt everything would return to normal."
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)