Protests force Thai PM to stand down in face-saving compromise

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The Independent Online

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra stunned the nation last night by crumbling under mounting pressure to quit and agreeing to relinquish power, despite winning Sunday's snap election with 57 per cent of the vote. Mr Thaksin, twice elected prime minister by landslide margins, dropped his post-election bombshell in an abruptly announced speech on national television. "I am sorry that I will not accept the premier post," he said in a subdued voice. But the man referred to by Bangkok's metropolitan elite as a "square-faced tyrant" will not be leaving office immediately.

"I want to retreat by not taking the prime ministership, but I have to be caretaker prime minister until the selection process for the next one is complete," he said, adding he would retain his parliamentary seat.

The embattled leader, worn down by weeks of protests calling for his resignation after a string of corruption allegations, did not name a successor. It is expected, however, that he or she will be picked from the Thai Rak Thai ("Thais love Thais") party, which Mr Thaksin founded.

"We have no time to quarrel. I want to see Thai people unite and forget what has happened," Mr Thaksin said last night.

The Thai opposition characterised the prime minister's unexpected move as a tactical retreat. Few in Thailand believe his political career is over.

Mr Thaksin's dramatic reversal came just hours after a visit to the seaside palace of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej's in Hua Hin. For weeks, protesters massed outside Bangkok's Royal Palace and a series of government offices, issuing appeals for the venerated monarch to intervene in the stand-off and end a political crisis which has divided the country into haves and have-nots.

A vocal urban minority has effectively taken down an elected leader who, despite allegations of power abuse and corruption, remains extremely popular among the poor, mainly rural population of the country.

Yesterday's face-saving compromise appeared to have defused a complex political crisis. Fears had been growing that violence would mar the King's forthcoming 60-year jubilee, an event of unparalleled importance in a nation that reveres its monarch as a living incarnation of the Buddha.

Thai Rak Thai's deputy leader, Jakrapob Penkar, described Mr Thaksin's act as "a very heroic decision".

Mr Thaksin's critics, who have motivated up to 130,000 protesters to denounce him on the streets of the capital, had planned huge anti-government protests designed to "shame him into quitting," said a member of the People's Alliance for Democracy.