BANGKOK, Apr 6: After three days of high political drama, Thailand enjoyed the lull of a public holiday today, but debate refused to cool about whether Thaksin Shinawatra's shock resignation as Prime Minister was for real.
''Total break or simply a canny ploy?'' the Bangkok Post asked in a front-page headline after Thaksin handed power to trusted deputy and fellow ex-policeman Chidchai Vanasatidya, who will run an interim government after the weekend's inconclusive election.
Having won the biggest majority in Thai history a year ago based on huge support from the rural masses, Thaksin, 56, attracted more and more enemies in Bangkok, where he was accused of corruption, cronyism and abuse of power.
A snap election called to stymie mass street protests appeared to backfire when the poll revealed an unexpectedly strong protest vote and an opposition boycott left 39 seats unfilled -- making it impossible for a government to be formed.
Amid a constitutional deadlock, Thaksin held a brief audience with revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, then went on television to tell Thailand's 63 million people he would be stepping aside in the interests of national reconciliation.
Speaking to reporters yesterday after an emotional rally at his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party headquarters, the former policeman said he wanted to be left alone.
''You can stop following me now. I will be just an ordinary citizen,'' he said after taking photographs of his family from his Government House desk and being showered with roses by hundreds of weeping supporters chanting ''Thaksin, fight, fight''.
''Please think about the heart of the country, which is the king,'' Thaksin said, appealing to their sense of patriotism at a time of national crisis. ''I don't want any bloodshed.'' But The Nation, critical of the telecoms billionaire since he came to power in 2001, said the exit demanded by his opponents after Sunday's Pyrrhic election victory would not mean the end of policies that have split Thailand between town and country.
''Despite the emotional announcement, the tears, the planned vacation and the designation of a new caretaker leader, Thaksin Shinawatra has built a political legacy too deep-rooted, massive and enigmatic to be undone,'' the newspaper said.
Former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai of the opposition Democrat party agreed. ''The Thaksin regime is still there,'' Chuan told reporters. ''We must understand that.''
King Bhumibol, 78, makes a rare public appearance later today at a wreath-laying ceremony honouring the start of the Chakri dynasty that has ruled Thailand for the last 250 years. It is not clear what role, if any, the constitutional monarch played in Thaksin's decision to quit, a move unthinkable seven months ago when the urban demonstrations first started.
In February, as protesters gathered in their thousands at his doorstep, Thaksin said the king was the only person he would heed. ''If his Majesty whispers to me and says 'Thaksin, you should go', I will immediately pay respect to his feet and quit,'' he said.
His promise to quit sent the stock market to a two-year peak and the baht hit a one-year high against the dollar, but a sharp increase in the currency's volatility sent a different signal -- that the immediate future could be more, not less, uncertain.
Many questions remained unanswered -- in particular when a new Prime Minister will be appointed, given that nobody knows when Parliament can meet.
The constitution says it must do so within 30 days of the April 2 election -- but it also says all 500 MPs must be present.
Hot favourite to be elected prime minister if and when parliament does meet is Commerce Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, an ex-finance minister well respected in the business community.
By-elections are due to be held on April 23 in the empty seats, all but one of which are in the south, stronghold of the Democrats who spearheaded the main election boycott.
Despite Thaksin's exit, they are sticking to their guns, and demanding wide-ranging political and constitutional reform before they return to the ballot box.
''We will send our candidates only after political reform,'' deputy Democrat leader Chulin Laksanaviset said after meeting co-boycotters, the Mahachon and Chat Thai parties.
The opposition has not spelled out what reforms it wants, but the parties accused Thaksin of undermining the checks and balances of the 1997 constitution. Analysts say they may also want to curb the powers of the Prime Minister.