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Thai PM opens snap poll campaign in populist mood

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BANGKOK, Feb 25: Embattled Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra strode confidently into his re-election bid today, promising a raft of populist measures as opponents pressed on with their campaign to oust him from politics.

''See you after April 2,'' Thaksin told the nation in his weekly radio speech after being forced into calling an early election just a year after a second landslide victory had made him appear impregnable.

But with his polls saying his popularity is at a record low following his relatives' 1.9 billion dollars sale of their controlling stake in the business empire he founded, Thaksin focussed his radio address on populist measures he was planning.

He spent two-thirds of his hour-long radio speech talking about help he wanted to give to labourers, civil servants students and farmers hit by inflation fuelled by high oil prices.

Thaksin promised a rise in the minimum wage in Bangkok, where the opposition to him is strongest by far and where organisers of a campaign to oust him hope to draw 100,000 people to a rally tomorrow.

He also pledged more debt relief for farmers in the countryside where 70 per cent of Thais live and where his support is thought to be solid enough to return him to power, albeit with a reduced majority.

''Some 180 baht a day in Bangkok is not enough, so I am thinking of 200 baht,'' Thaksin said in reference to the 4.5 dollar minimum daily wage.

There would also be pay rises for civil servants and a plan to give part-time jobs to students, said Thaksin, who won praise for taking the constitutional road out of a crisis rather than risk street brawls in a coup-prone country.

Thaksin's popularity has fallen to 34.5 per cent this month, according to a nationwide poll by Bangkok's Assumption University, compared with 77.5 per cent right after his party won 377 of the 500 lower house seats a year ago. Although the campaign to oust him began in September, based on charges of conflict of interest, undermining the checks and balances of the constitution and corruption, only with the sale of Shin Corp last month did it catch fire.

The tax-free sale to a Singapore state investment firm outraged middle-class tax payers in Bangkok, despite regulators clearing Thaksin of any wrongdoing in the sale of shares he handed over to relatives before entering politics.

However, it unleashed an anger opposition parties, which accuse Thaksin of tailoring policy to suit Shin Corp, hope to cash in on by accusing him of a lack of morality and ethics.

He denies all the charges and says one of the reasons for the sale was to remove any hint of conflict of interest and analysts say the opposition parties are unlikely to be able to win enough seats to unseat his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party.

Even the biggest of the opposition parties acknowledges the mountain it has to climb after Thaksin set April 2 as the date for an election which comes as they are still reorganising after their overwhelming defeat a year ago.

''We won't have as many government media outlets as Thai Rak Thai will for their campaign,'' said Ong-Ard Klampaiboon of the Democrat Party which won 97 in last polls.

The Democrats would gain seats from Bangkok voters who turned their back on Thaksin, but it was unlikely the opposition would win 200 seats, political analyst Sukhum Nualskul said.

Thaksin has also focussed his early campaign on the bid to oust him through mass rallies which carry the possibility of violence as unconstitutional politics.

''These people are acting like representatives of the people, but they are indeed using mob rules, which I can't stand,'' Thaksin said yesterday.

Reuters

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