THAILAND

By-elections bolster new PM's coalition

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has welcomed the results of key by-elections on Sunday that firmed up his Democrat Party's hold on power and offered new hope for an end to the country's political turmoil.

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AFP - Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva Monday hailed his government's victory in key by-elections which cemented the new coalition's grip on power and boosted hopes for an end to months of political turmoil.

His month-old Democrat Party-led coalition grabbed 20 of the 29 seats being contested and the opposition just nine, according to initial results released by the Election Commission after Sunday's vote.

The polls came as a blow to allies of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who had hoped to narrow Oxford-educated Abhisit's thin majority in the 480-member parliament.

"The result from the by-elections reflects that people want to see the country move forwards and become less divided," Abhisit told reporters at his office in Bangkok.

"It also reflects that they want the government to solve the country's economic and social problems quickly."

Sunday's by-elections were triggered when a Constitutional Court ruling on December 2 toppled the previous, pro-Thaksin government and banned scores of lawmakers from politics because of vote fraud charges.

British-born Abhisit then came to power in a close parliamentary vote on December 15, forming a government with defectors from the Thaksin-backed People Power Party (PPP) and former coalition partners of the PPP.

The vote brought an end to six months of sometimes violent protests against the former government, which peaked with the crippling week-long occupation of Bangkok's two airports in late November to early December.

Supporters of Thaksin, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and lives in exile to avoid a prison term for corruption, have held their own protests against Abhisit in recent weeks, saying they have been cheated.

"The result strengthens the government position," political scientist Prayad Hongtongkhum told AFP. "Voters who understand politics want to give the current government a chance to work."

Election Commission public relations director Ruengroj Chomsueb said that Abhisit's Democrat Party won seven seats and its allies scooped 13, while the two parties linked to Thaksin held on to nine seats.

Turnout was estimated at 60 percent, although the results still have to be certified by the Election Commission and officially announced within a month.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban told reporters that no cabinet reshuffle was planned following the by-elections. "The result will not lead to a reform of the current government," Suthep told reporters.

Bangkok residents also voted Sunday for a new city governor, and a Suan Dusit university exit poll showed the Democrat Party's Sukhumbhand Paribatra taking the job after winning nearly 47 percent of the vote.

The previous governor, Apirak Kosayodhin -- who is a deputy leader of the Democrat Party -- quit in November, just a month after winning a second term, when corruption allegations emerged.

Thailand remains deeply divided between those loyal to Thaksin and elements of the old power cliques in the military, palace and bureaucracy who feel threatened by his popularity among the rural poor.

The urbane Abhisit has so far failed to dent Thaksin's support base in the north and northeast, while his own Democrat Party counts Bangkok and the south as its strongholds.

A pro-Thaksin movement known as the "red-shirts" said Monday it would hold further protests demanding the resignation of the new foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, for his role in last year's airport protests.

"If there is no response from the government, we may gather at parliament on January 21," said core movement leader Wiphuthalang Phattanaphumthai.

The group blockaded parliament at the end of December to prevent Abhisit from giving his first parliamentary address.
 

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