Thaksin Woos Thai Voters, Sparks Poll Speculation
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra today urged supporters to vote for him, boosting speculation of an early election, amid growing calls for his resignation.
``If you are fed up with me let me know, if you want me to continue working for you, vote for me,'' Thaksin told a cheering crowd at a meeting of agricultural cooperatives in Bangkok. He didn't explain why he'd mentioned a vote.
Calls for Thaksin, 56, to step down intensified after his family last month sold their stake in communications company Shin Corp. to Singapore's Temasek Holdings Pte, netting a tax- free $1.9 billion. The billionaire leader today summoned business and political leaders to a government office, while opponents planned a Sunday protest in Bangkok that they want to be the largest since the then-government was overthrown in 1992.
Today's comment may be the strongest evidence yet that Thaksin is considering a snap election, analysts said. The premier's second term is due to run until 2009.
``Everybody is saying that's what he's going to do,'' said Andrew Stotz, head of research in Thailand at Citigroup Inc. The uncertainty has hit Thai stocks, with the benchmark SET losing 3.3 percent in February, and headed for the biggest monthly drop since October.
Thaksin's criticized over ethical issues, media freedom, education reforms, planned sales of shares in public utilities, and Muslim unrest in the south. An alliance of anti-Thaksin groups have called on the premier to dissolve parliament and call an early election if he won't resign.
One of the draw cards on Sunday for a protest intended to attract 200,000 people will be Chamlong Srimuang, a former governor of Bangkok and deputy prime minister. He's most famous for the bloody Black May uprising of 1992 that toppled military ruler General Suchinda Kraprayoon after soldiers shot at least 43 protesters.
The 71-year-old religious activist -- the man who introduced Thaksin to politics, inviting him to become foreign minister in 1994 -- this week joined calls for his protégé's resignation. Thaksin lost legitimacy and breached the code of honor of his former military cadet unit with the Shin Corp. sale, Chamlong told Thai media.
Chamlong and his devout supporters -- thousands of Buddhists associated with Santi Asoke temple in Bangkok -- are ``a formidable force'', Bangkok-based Phatra Securities Pcl said in a note to investors dated Feb. 20. That view may be shared by his opponents -- the temple reported a bomb explosion on Feb. 22, prompting speculation of a link.
Share Sale Scuppered
In campaigns over the past two years, Chamlong helped scupper state plans to buy a soccer team and stalled the sale by Thailand's richest man, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, of shares in Thai Beverage Pcl, the country's biggest brewer.
The share sale was postponed indefinitely after Chamlong said it violated Buddhist principles relating to alcohol -- and saffron-robed monks joined a protest march to the stock exchange. He fought Thaksin's headline-stealing plan in 2004 to sell lottery tickets to finance the purchase of 30 percent of Liverpool Football Club.
``Chamlong and his supporters coming out to threaten the government and to say they won't stop protesting until Thaksin quits does not look good,'' Teera Phutrakul, executive chairman of Finansa Asset Management Ltd., a Bangkok-based fund manager, said on Wednesday. Teera said the development ``raises the question of whether we could see a repeat of Black May.''
``If I was the prime minister, I would quit and call elections,'' he said, adding Thaksin could prove his popularity.
Thaksin's `Iron Hand'
A protest leader saw things differently.
``This prime minister has been a dictator, and ruled with an iron hand, and this sell-out of Shin Corp. is the final nail in the coffin,'' Kotchawan Chaiyabutr, secretary-general of the Student Federation of Thailand, told media in Bangkok yesterday.
Rallies attacking Thaksin have been held downtown in the capital almost weekly since November, initially led by the premier's former friend Sondhi Limthongkul, a media magnate and co-host of a show banned from state television.
As his opponents circle, the premier is seeking advice.
He summoned business leaders -- including Prasarn Trairatvorakul, president of Kasikornbank Pcl, Thailand's third largest lender -- to a meeting today to gauge the economic effects of the unrest. Thaksin sought the counsel of Prem Tinsulanonda, the chief adviser to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, yesterday. The government denied Thai media reports Thaksin was meeting the king today -- a focus because the monarch's approval is needed to dissolve parliament.
Investors say they're worried. ``Political concern has clouded the stock and other financial markets,'' Maris Tarab, managing director of ING Mutual Funds Management (Thailand) Co., said yesterday at a seminar in Bangkok on the unrest.
``Investors, especially domestic ones, are worrying about the stability of the government.''
Thaksin is the only Thai premier to have completed a four- year term since the kingdom became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. In February last year, his Thai Rak Thai party won a second term, securing a record 375 seats in the 500-member parliament.