Thai leader hints he may step down after protests

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The Independent Online

Thailand's embattled Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has hinted that he might give in to growing demands for his immediate resignation by stepping aside "temporarily" to concentrate on his campaign for next month's snap elections on 2 April.

The billionaire former telecoms tycoon is anxious to ease tensions in Bangkok, where tens of thousands of protesters have denounced his alleged corruption and abuses of power. The political future of Mr Thaksin's Thais Love Thais party is in jeopardy after he alienated the urban middle class in January by allowing a billion pound tax-free windfall for his family.

Mr Thaksin, who denies any impropriety, has yet to name a stand-in caretaker or to disclose when, or for how long, he might relinquish power.

The populist leader was elected by a landslide to a second four-year term in February 2005, although this mandate looks shaky after six months of unrelenting political attacks against one of Asia's wealthiest men. But he said he was not giving up just yet."How could I give up when there are so many people out here to support me? I would be crazy if I did," the Prime Minister said.

Earlier, he had proposed a neutral body to reform the constitution and hold new elections within 15 months. But the opposition quashed the suggestion, arguing that no one on a panel appointed by the premier would remain impartial. A move to limit any prime minister to two terms of office now is under way, which would make Mr Thaksin technically ineligible to lead again.

Meanwhile, Thailand's election commissioner announced that the snap poll, which three major opposition parties have pledged to boycott, are likely to be postponed. There are concerns that they may violate the constitution because voters are unlikely to select the full house of 500 parliamentary members required to name a new premier.

The main stumbling block is a quota of 100 "party list" parliamentary candidates. Even in an uncontested seat, a candidate must win by 20 per cent of the eligible vote. Few of the smaller parties are likely to get that.

In an unusual appeal from the palace, the adviser to Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej called for a resolution to the political impasse. "All those involved are grown-ups and have good intentions for the country... I would like to appeal to all parties involved to think and act for the best for our country and our people," Prem Tinsulanonda said yesterday. The last royal intervention in politics was 14 years ago.