Thai Opposition May Shun Poll Unless Thaksin Pledges Reform

Thailand's two key political opposition parties today said they may boycott a snap election if Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra refuses to meet with them tomorrow and commit to political and constitutional reforms.

Members of Thailand's three opposition parties -- Democrat, Chart Thai and Muan Chon -- threatened to boycott the poll, which Thaksin scheduled for April 2. The opposition parties decided against immediately boycotting the poll, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said today.

``We want Thaksin to have options to end the current political crisis,'' Abhisit, also speaking on behalf of Muan Chon, told a press conference broadcast on radio in Bangkok today. ``If the three (opposition) parties boycott, it would mean there's no way out of this political crisis. We will consider a boycott if he does not agree.'' Abhisit did not explain what reform demands would be made.

Thaksin, whose Thai Rak Thai, or `Thais Love Thais' party last year won an unprecedented second term with a record 375 out of 500 seats, dissolved parliament on Feb. 24 and called a new poll, giving just five weeks campaigning time to his opponents, who have admitted they would struggle to compete in a poll.

$1.9 Bln Stake Sale

Calls for Thaksin, 56, to step down intensified after his family last month sold its stake in communications company Shin Corp. to Singapore's Temasek Holdings Pte, netting a tax-free $1.9 billion. Thaksin also faces attacks over media freedom, ministerial ethics, education reforms, planned sales of shares in public utilities, and Muslim unrest in the south.

The 37 days between dissolving parliament and the federal poll prevents any existing members of parliament from switching allegiance, or any new candidates joining parties, because Thailand's constitution requires a minimum 90-day party membership before individuals can stand for election.

The date chosen is also close to the April 19 election scheduled for Thailand's 200-member senate, who serve six year terms and are not aligned to political parties.

Opponents today held an anti-Thaksin rally downtown that organizers hope will attract at least 100,000 people and be the largest since the then-government was overthrown in 1992. Rallies attacking Thaksin have been held in the capital Bangkok almost weekly since November, initially led by the prime minister's former friend Sondhi Limthongkul, a media magnate and co-host of a show banned from state television.

Protests in Bangkok

By 4 p.m. in Bangkok, at least 5,000 protesters had already gathered at Sanam Luang park, and thousands more were heading to the site of the evening rally to demand Thaksin's resignation. The park is a site of past protests including a 1976 military crackdown on a student rally that left dozens dead or wounded.

``I want him to get out of politics and get out of Thailand,'' said Kamala Hongskul, a mother of two who lives in Bangkok and attended today's rally. ``He's not sincere -- he's working for himself and his family -- not for the country and not (against) poverty.''

Banners in the blue, red and white of the Thai national flag adorned temporary barricades set up around the protest site, with messages including: `Don't Be Deceived By His Glittering Gold - With It He Would Cast A Gun To Rob Your Country', and: `Better Poor With Honor Than Rich With Shame'.

Overthrow

``There are a group of people who want to overthrow my government. I cannot accept rule by a group of people above the rule of law,'' Thaksin said in an address broadcast on all six television networks on Feb. 24. ``I will fully accept any decision by the Thai people. I won't accept the demands of any group of people who claim that they represent all of you.''

By calling the early election ``Thaksin is solving his own problem, not the country's problem,'' Somsak Prisananthakul, deputy leader of the opposition Chart Thai Party, said on television after Thaksin's announcement. ``Thaksin still didn't answer a lot of questions about the tax-related issues on his family's share sales.''

The opposition Democrat party earlier this month acknowledged it would struggle to compete in a snap poll.

``The chance of him winning a new mandate, you have to admit, is high,'' said Korn Chatikavanij, Democrat deputy secretary general and the former head of JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s Thai unit said Feb. 8. ``The Democrats are not really ready for an election. Thaksin genuinely is very popular in the provinces.''

Rural Support

Thaksin enjoys strong support outside of the capital, where only about 10 million of the nation's 65 million people live, analysts said. The rural population has benefited from farmer- friendly Thaksin policies and cheap loans and medical care for villagers, while Bangkok remains snarled in traffic jams because of delays in building mass transit systems.

``He is taking a risk but I think it's a well calculated risk and that he should get a popular mandate,'' said Tino Sarantis, who manages $155 million in stocks for BSI SA in Lugano, Switzerland. ``His unpopularity probably comes from a group of people in Bangkok. The people outside Bangkok, rural parts of Thailand, do support him and I assume will vote for him.''

One rural voter disagreed at today's protest.

``He has to get out -- he bought the votes,'' in the Feb. 2005 election, said a man who identified himself as Pompang, who waved a yellow sign which read `Just Say No - Thaksin Get Out'. Pompang said this was his first rally, and that he had traveled from Kanchanburi province, about three hours west of Bangkok. ``I think his politics is not fair.''

To contact the reporters on this story: Beth Jinks in Bangkok at bjinks1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bruce Grant at bruceg@bloomberg.net

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