Despite victory, Thai premier to step down


BANGKOK, Thailand -- Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, faced with the threat of continuing public protests against his leadership, announced yesterday that he would resign his post despite his party's victory in parliamentary elections Sunday.

The surprise announcement was an abrupt turnaround for Thaksin, who had tried for months to remain in power despite allegations that he had abused his position to enrich himself and his family.

"I am sorry that I will not accept the prime minister post," Thaksin said in a nationally televised address. "We have no time to quarrel. I want to see Thai people unite and forget what has happened."

On Monday, Thaksin had declared victory in the parliamentary elections and seemed unfazed by an opposition boycott that drew support from 10 million voters. But yesterday evening, hours after meeting with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thaksin announced his resignation. The king, who has reigned for nearly 60 years, has intervened to resolve political crises in the past but it was unclear whether he played a part in Thaksin's resignation.

Thaksin said he would remain as caretaker prime minister until a new government could be formed, a process clouded by uncertainty because of the boycott's success in preventing 38 parliamentary seats from being filled.

While Thaksin has strong support from rural voters, opposition to his rule had grown among educated urban voters after the tax-free sale to Singapore of his family's $1.9 billion stake in the Shin Corp. telecommunications company he founded.

Thaksin, a billionaire former police officer who led Thailand for more than five years, had hoped to regain legitimacy by calling a snap election three years early. In announcing his resignation, Thaksin defended himself against criticism that he had profited from his position.

"For the last five years I have worked very hard," he said. "I have tried to do everything for the country. I did everything for the country, not for myself."

Thaksin's departure was welcomed by opposition leaders, who had said earlier that they would halt their daily demonstrations if the prime minister stepped aside. But some questioned his continuing role as the leader of his Thai Rak Thai party, which won every parliamentary seat but one in which there was a winner, according to preliminary returns.

The opposition refused to run any candidates in the election and urged supporters to mark their ballots for no one. The strategy helped bring about Thaksin's departure but handed his party lopsided control of parliament if the election stands.

Even with Thaksin's departure, Thailand's political crisis continues. According to the constitution, parliament must convene within 30 days of the election. But it also requires that all seats be filled before parliament can meet.

The Election Commission has called for immediate elections in the 38 districts in which the boycott prevented any candidate from winning and has ruled that opposition candidates can run.

But if the opposition agrees to take part in the elections, their parties could end up as part of a parliament in which Thai Rak Thai holds more than 90 percent of the seats. Opposition leaders said they were considering their next move.

In his speech to the nation, Thaksin said he wanted to end the political turmoil before June, when the king is scheduled to mark his 60th anniversary with a celebration expected to draw dignitaries around the world.

"It is 60 days before the celebration of the king's coronation," Thaksin said. "There will be many royal guests from all over the world. Why don't we clean up our house and end the messy confusion."

Richard C. Paddock writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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