New premier gives policy speech delayed by pro-Thaksin rallies and warns 'political conflict could push economy into recession.'
Protesters fail to stop Thai PM
BANGKOK // Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand's recently elected prime minister, stressed the need to boost the country's economy and improve its international image in his maiden speech yesterday, which took place at the foreign ministry instead of parliament and one day late because anti-government protesters had blockaded the building. Mr Abhisit, who was elected in a parliamentary vote two weeks ago, had to deliver his policy statement to a joint sitting of the House of Representatives and Senate before his government could formally start work on measures to try to revive the country's economy, battered by the protracted political crisis. Demonstrators had seized the country's international airport for more than a week and left only when the party that led the previous government was ordered dissolved. Hopes that the newly formed coalition government, led by the Democrat Party, would resolve the country's political crisis have been short-lived as 10,000 red-shirted supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, an ousted prime minister, blockaded parliament in protest against what they see as a "silent coup". "The Abhisit government has no legitimacy - they have not won an election for more than eight years - and therefore have no mandate to be in power," said Jakrapob Penkhair, one of the demonstration's leaders and a close confidant of Thaksin. "The only solution is to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections." Mr Abhisit has promised heavy government investment in an effort to turn the economy around, which will include speeding up already planned mega-projects like extensions to Bangkok's underground and the elevated railway known as the Sky Train. Earlier he had announced a package of government spending worth US$8.6 billion (Dh31.6bn), much of which is to be directed to the poor rural areas of the north and north-east, where support for the ousted government and Thaksin remains strong. In his speech, Mr Abhisit also took measures to attract both international investors and tourists back to Thailand. Street protests and political turmoil continue to harm the country's international image and the economy. "Political conflicts that have spread to civic groups could push the economy, along with the tourism industry, into recession if action is not taken quickly to resolve them and revive confidence among investors and foreign tourists," the prime minister said in his speech, which was televised. "These conflicts are the country's weakness, especially at a time the world economy is entering its worst crisis in a century." Mr Abhisit also said unemployment could double if nothing is done to boost the economy. Although the new prime minister portrays himself as a figure who hopes to heal divisions in the country, many analysts believe the odds are stacked against him because of the way he came to power. "The legitimacy of this government is based only partially in elections and more significantly on the manipulation of politicians ? That puts them in bed with some very unsavoury political characters and forces traditionally antithetical to democracy, including the military," said Kevin Hewison, a Thai studies professor at the University of North Carolina. Having failed to win power through the electoral process on two previous attempts, Mr Abhisit knows he must succeed as prime minister if he is to be able to go to the polls next time and persuade voters they should support him and the Democrats, according to party insiders. He now has money and moral authority on his side to do that, they said. Mr Abhisit has unashamedly adopted many of the populist policies of his predecessor and nemesis, Thaksin, to garner the support of the poor in the cities and the farmers in country's north and north-east. "Populism should not be considered a dirty word; it's being adopted in many countries throughout the world to fight the current economic crisis," including in the United Kingdom and United States, said Kavi Chongkittavorn, the senior political editor at The Nation, an English-language daily newspaper. "But what makes Abhisit different from Thaksin is that the infusion of funds will be transparent and accountable - and he will make sure they really benefit the people at the grassroots or community level, and not just feather the beds of the village headmen." Thailand's political crisis is not likely to be resolved soon, especially as the red shirts have promised to step up their public protests against the government until fresh elections are held. "The protests outside parliament will be suspended soon, but more rallies will be held throughout the country after the New Year holidays," said Veera Musigapong, a key leader of the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship, which is organising the demonstrations. "These protests will be peaceful and legal - we will not seize any government buildings." The current government plans to stay in power for two more years if possible, according to senior members of the Democrat Party. Gen Anupong Paojinda, the army chief who was instrumental in forming the new coalition government, has promised to support the Democrat government for the next two years. But a repeat of this year's turmoil could change the dynamics of power yet again. "For the time being at least it's in Abhisit's own hands," Mr Kavi said. "He needs to disburse government funds as quickly as possible - not only for the sake of the economy but to prove that the Democrats are really pro-people." The first test of whether the Democrats are capable of making inroads into Thaksin's popularity will come within the next two weeks when by-elections will be held for 40 seats as a result of a court ruling last month that barred the MPs from politics for the next five years. firstname.lastname@example.org