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Thai PM returns to rebellious Bangkok, poll doubts

Written by: Staff
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BANGKOK, Mar 16: Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned in defiant mood from the provincial campaign trail today to protesters massed outside his office and doubts that his April 2 snap election can go ahead.

The billionaire telecoms tycoon confessed he was nervous about the impact of the political crisis on the economy as more and more businessmen and analysts expressed concern about the long-term impact of a campaign to oust him.

But, after switching a meeting from his office rather than face protesters baying for his head, he scotched the idea that he might step aside to break the impasse and ease fears of violence in a country with a long and recent history of military coups.

''Everybody must be responsible. They must play by existing rules otherwise people who respect the rules will have to yield to those who don't follow the rules,'' he told reporters.

Asked if he had thought about stepping aside temporarily an idea that a day earlier he had labelled a ''good suggestion'' -- he said in English: ''I have not considered yet''.

Besides investors, the royal palace and army are also worried about a repeat of the civil unrest and bloodshed that broke out in a ''people power'' uprising against military rule in 1992.

This time, the soldiers are vowing to stay out of politics.

''The army is concerned and feels uncomfortable. We've been taught to be patriotic, to think of national unity and to keep peace and order,'' army chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin told reporters.

''We can only pray for the situation to ease. But our stand is the same as before, which is to remain neutral.''

POLL DOUBTS

Wildly popular in the countryside, where 70 per cent of Thailand's 63 million people live, Thaksin has billed April's vote as a referendum on his leadership in the face of the campaign by Bangkok's middle classes to kick him out.

He had been expected to win another thumping majority time, but the Election Commission says it might have to be delayed.

Court cases on eligibility meant it would probably take another week before the commission could decide whether the poll, which is being boycotted by the three main opposition parties, would have to be delayed, chairman Wassana Permlap said. The election is unlikely to produce the full house of 500 MPs required by the constitution to form a new government, with the required quota of 100 ''party list'' MPs -- a form of proportional representation -- the main concern.

A party must get 5 per cent of votes cast to win a party list seat, a threshold none of the small parties is likely to cross.

Making matters worse, one man on Thaksin's party list quit to become a Buddhist monk, leaving it with only 99 names.

Both sides have made noises about wanting to talk to resolve the crisis, but there appears little to discuss given that one side wants Thaksin out, and the other wants him in.

''We have moved only one step forward, how could we retreat?'' Thaksin's mentor turned foe Chamlong Srimuang told reporters. ''To solve this crisis, the prime minister must resign.'' Thaksin has proffered an olive branch in the form of an offer to set up a neutral body to reform the constitution and hold another election within 15 months.

But the opposition, which accuses him of corruption, cronyism and undermining the checks and balances of the 1997 charter, rejected the idea, saying no panel he appointed could be neutral.

The political turmoil, which intensified in January when Thaksin's relatives sold off their 1.9 billion dollars chunk of the family telecoms business tax-free, has begun to worry investors.

David Marshall, managing director of Asia financial institutions at Fitch Ratings, told Reuters the agency might have to cut its economic growth forecast if the crisis persisted.

''I think we probably won't do that if the political problems can be resolved within a matter of weeks, but if they persist for a month, it will have a negative impact on the economy and then we may have to take another look,'' he said.

It was already having some direct impact. Chainid Ngow-Sirimanee, head of Thai builder Property Perfect PCL, said Singapore firms had delayed decisions on potential investments in the Thai property sector worth 256 million dollars.

REUTERS

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