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Thai Finance Minister Says Elections Possible, Economy Will Recover

Thailand could hold elections this year, Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij has told foreign correspondents in Tokyo. The minister is in Japan to attend an economic conference, and in his words "explain the truth" about the political crisis and violence in his country.

Korn is optimistic about his country, even as it struggles to recover from its worst political violence in nearly 20 years.

On Wednesday, the army cleared out a protest camp that had occupied central Bangkok for two-months, in an operation that sparked rioting and arson in the city.

On Friday, Korn told foreign correspondents in Tokyo that his country is still in shock.

"It may actually be a watershed and a catalyst for genuine reform, That may see us emerge as a stronger society," he said.

He says that a new society would begin with a new government, and adds it is "highly unlikely" the current leadership will serve until the next scheduled election at the end of 2011. He suggests his government could hold elections in November, as the prime minister offered earlier this month, but says that is not certain.

"I don't think we're in a position to say with comfort that we can have a violence-free period of election campaigning by all parties across all regions of the country," he said.

Korn says elections will only be held under assurances that they would be "free and fair," with results that all Thais could accept.

Thailand has suffered a series of political crises since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption, but remains popular among poor and rural voters, who feel neglected by the country's traditional ruling elite.

Korn rejects the idea that Mr. Thaksin and his supporters triggered the protests in a fight for democracy. But he says he understands the frustrations of the country's poor, especially those working in urban factories.

"The quality of life as a rural poor, in a country like Thailand, is much, much higher than an urban poor," he said. "Critically, there's not much to compare yourself with when you're a rural poor as compared with an urban poor."

The Thai government is eager to get the country's economy back on track. While Korn says the violence had minimal impact on the country's gross domestic product, investors wary of the protests have pulled out.

He says his government needs to put its "house in order" so that investors return and help get Thailand's economy back on track for rapid growth.