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    Democrat Party Leader Looks Like Strongest Candidate for Thai PM

    Thailand's Democrat Party leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, says he is ready to take up the reins as the next prime minister. But some people consider Abhisit to be untested as a leader.
     
    The Democrat Party says it has the backing of more than 250 members of the 480 seat House of Representatives.

    The party has asked that a special session of parliament be held this month to vote.

    The 44-year-old Oxford-educated Abhisit has led his party since 2005.
     
    He entered politics in 1992, a year of tumult in Thailand as the military sought to crush pro-democracy groups opposed to plans to name a un-elected prime minister.

    In addition to holding seats in parliament, Abhisit has served as a government spokesman and as an official in the prime minister's office.
     
    But Chris Baker, an author and commentator on Thailand, says despite Abhisit's experience, he appears untested as a leader.
     
    "He's something of an unknown. He's only ever had a junior ministerial post but the Democrat Party is at least a party in a much more meaningful sense than any of the other political parties in Thailand. So there will be a kind of quiet strong corporate presence to help him," said Baker.  "I don't think we need to look at just Abhisit on his own, it's the Democrats as a whole."

    If he becomes prime minister, he will be defeating allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His supporters in the People Power Party won the election a year ago, but two successive PPP prime ministers have been removed from office for technical legal violations - most recently last week.

    The country has been wracked by protests by the PPP's opponents, who say the party and its leaders acted for Mr. Thaksin, whom the protesters consider corrupt and authoritarian. He was ousted in coup in 2006, and has fled the country to avoid corruption charges.

    However, Mr. Thaksin and his allies have strong backing among Thailand's rural poor and urban working class.

    Much of the criticism of the PPP focused on its efforts to weaken the court cases against Mr. Thaksin by amending the constitution.

    In an interview with VOA earlier this year, Mr. Abhisit criticized those efforts.
     
    "The Thai people and Thailand should have really seized the opportunity of having an elected government to build up confidence and to deal with the economic problems because the government has got the wrong priorities - concerned about the interests of the former prime minister - putting these interests before the interests of the country and the people we've wasted four months," he said.
     
    Anti-government protesters two weeks ago overran Bangkok's airports, shutting down air traffic. That added to political tensions, but the protests ended when a court verdict removed the prime minister and disbanded the PPP.
     
    Democrat Party spokesman Buranaj Samutharak says Abhisit's priority will be to end the divisions in the country.

    "Khun [Mr.] Abhisit and the Democrat Party with the help of the coalition parties will - as it's most important priority - seek to reunite Thailand - and we will no longer be a country if factions and exclusion but all Thais, regardless of which political party they support, will be treated equally before the law in terms of how policies are implemented and this is a key consideration," said Buranaj.

    But Baker says Abhisit will struggle to match the influence Mr. Thaksin has.
     
    "Thaksin's popularity isn't just because of his policies - it's because he became a much more public leader - someone who [they] felt to be working for the people on their side, someone they could understand. … I cannot see the Democrats - and in particular Abhisit - playing anything like that role," said Baker.
     
    Pro-Thaksin politicians, however, say they will challenge the Democrats in electing a prime minister. Thai news media report they are negotiating to bring former coalition partners back to their side.

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