Thailand's election winner puts together coalition

Associated Press
A Thai woman holds a newspaper Monday, July 4, 2011, with news of the Pheu Thai party's landslide victory over Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party in yesterday's general election. With the victory Yingluck Shinawatra, leader of the Pheu Thai party, is tapped to become the next prime minister of Thailand. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)
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BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's election winner moved quickly Monday to shore up her party's already-resounding victory, forming a ruling coalition with four smaller parties and vowing to pursue national reconciliation after five years of instability and political violence over the military coup that ousted her brother.

Yingluck Shinawatra, who will become Thailand's first female prime minister, said her priority would be "how to lead the country to unity and reconciliation."

The 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra sharply polarized Thai society, opening up a struggle between his supporters and opponents that culminated in protests and street battles that roiled Bangkok last year and took 90 lives as the army restored order.

The military eased concerns of renewed turmoil Monday by declaring acceptance of the sweeping electoral win of Yingluck's pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party.

Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon said the army would accept a government led by 44-year-old Yingluck, and vowed the military would not stage a coup.

"I've said this several times," Prawit was quoted as saying by several Thai newspapers. "We are not going to intervene."

Thailand's democratic process has been repeatedly thwarted over the years, with 18 successful or attempted military coups since the 1930s.

The lower house of parliament has 30 days to convene, and another 30 days from its first session to officially select a prime minister, but Pheu Thai's speedy agreement to form a five-party coalition is a sign that a new government can be expected ahead of the deadlines.

Pheu Thai won an outright majority of 265 seats in the 500-seat lower house of parliament, according to preliminary results from Sunday's vote. Her five-party coalition will hold 299 seats in all, a figure Yingluck described as "auspicious" — the number nine is considered lucky in many Asian cultures — and enough to ensure stability.

Although the coalition partners still must agree on an allocation of Cabinet seats, their pact should strengthen Yingluck's government-to-be, especially if legal challenges under electoral law force some of her party's lawmakers from their positions.

The election marked an extraordinary rebuke of the military-backed establishment that deposed Thaksin, and the opposition's strong mandate in parliament was likely to boost stability in the short-term — a fact reflected in a sharp rise in the Thai stock market Monday.

Thaksin had been accused of corruption and disrespect to the country's esteemed constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

But his supporters have often cast the establishment's rejection of Thaksin as a case of the privileged rich fearful of letting the poor majority make their voices heard through electoral democracy. Thaksin also won their allegiance by instituting populist programs such as subsidized housing and health care.

"In many ways, for Pheu Thai voters, Thaksin is symbolic of the lack of democracy and fairness," commented Kevin Hewison, professor of Asian studies at the University of North Carolina. "More than that, the vote is about having a voice that is heard. If you could yell into the ballot box, this is that yell. It is not a 'rebel yell,' but a demand for elections and votes that count in Thailand."

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva meanwhile resigned Monday as leader of the Democrat Party, which has led a coalition government since December 2008, after it won just 159 seats.

"I think that a good leader has to show responsibility," he said, explaining why he decided to step down.

Joining the Democrats in opposition will be the Rak Thailand — Love Thailand — Party of former massage parlor tycoon Chuvit Kamolvisit, whose tough-talking, anti-corruption campaign garnered four seats.

Yingluck said her coalition would be joined by Chart Thai Pattana, with 19 seats in preliminary results; Chart Pattana Puea Pandin, with 7 seats; Palang Chon, 7; and Mahachon, 1.

In Dubai, Thaksin hailed the election result. "The Thai people spoke," he said. "They told the world, the whole country ... (that) the last five years, the country has gone nowhere.

"It's very clear," he said of those who cast ballots, "that they want to see reconciliation in the country, the end of the conflict ... it will be a big challenge for Pheu Thai."

Thaksin, who became a billionaire in telecommunications before entering politics, was convicted of graft and lives in exile to escape a two-year-prison sentence. Thaksin says the charges are politically motivated.

Thaksin said he would stay in Dubai for the time being "doing business," and if his sister's party needs advice, he will give it. "If they don't need, I don't have to worry. The Thai people will be in good hands."

Asked about his return to politics, Thaksin said, "I may be too old ... I really want to retire."

Whatever his plans, Thaksin will continue to be at the center of Thai politics for the foreseeable future.

"In all likelihood, the immediate aftermath of the election is going to be more about Thaksin," said scholar Hewison. "The group who designate themselves 'the people who hate Thaksin' are going to be hard at work. The Democrat Party has made it clear that opposing Thaksin is their main task. They will be joined by those who have opposed Thaksin since 2005.

"For Pheu Thai, much now depends on Thaksin being less aggressive and headstrong than he has been in the past. Has he learned to be more patient?"

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Associated Press writers Todd Pitman, Sinfah Tunsarawuth and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok and Michael Casey in Dubai contributed to this report.

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