Thais move away from military rule

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SIXTY YEARS since the abolition of absolute monarchy, Thailand has taken a determined first step towards the possible establishment of a political regime no longer underpinned by the country's military. The four political parties which campaigned in Sunday's general election for reduced military involvement in Thai politics, yesterday said they intended to form a coalition government after between them gaining a narrow majority.

The man expected to become Prime Minister is Chuan Leekpai, head of the Democrat party, which unexpectedly won the most seats, although nowhere near a majority. If he secures the top post, Mr Chuan will be Thailand's first elected prime minister who does not come from a military background.

The Democrat party did particularly well in the south of the country and also in Bangkok. 'Overall, Thais were voting for the middle path. A compromise, but also a way out of the traditional money politics,' said one Western diplomat.

Political analysts cautioned, however, of the difficulties that still lay ahead before a stable government emerged. Although he has the explicit backing of the three other pro-democracy parties, this gives Mr Chuan the slenderest of majorities, a coalition of 185 seats in the 360- member House of Representatives. The Democrat party won 79 seats, almost double its result in the March elections, but only two more than the strongest pro-military party, Chart Thai.

Since March, Thai politics has been shaped by a sharp division between the pro-democracy and pro-military parties, the so-called 'angels' and 'devils'. It was in protest at the appointment of an unelected military man that thousands of demonstrators turned out on to the streets in Bangkok in May, resulting in a bloody crackdown by the army in which scores died. And it was the shock of this bloodshed, and the yearning for a cleaner political system, that appears to have mobilised enough voters in Sunday's election to win against more traditional feudal and vote-buying politics.

The difficulties now are two-fold. In the past, Thailand's coalition governments - even pro-military ones - have often been held together by the very presence, and possible threat, of the military. Since March, demotions and reshuffles implemented by the civilian caretaker Prime Minister, Anand Panyarachun, have significantly weakened the military, probably for the next couple of years. So Thai parties now have to learn to work together for reasons other than to stave off a military coup.

Mr Chuan will find that it is not enough from now on simply to be anti- military. Fleshing out the coalition's programme of policies may be a quick test of the new coalition and will also be made that much harder by the need to attract others into the coalition.

The most likely new coalition member would be the new Seritham party but it would bring just eight seats. For a solid block, Mr Chuan might have to do a deal with the new Chart Pattana party, led by Chatichai Choonhavan, the elected prime minister overthrown in 1991. However, this party's 'angelic' credentials are rather tarnished by the verdict on Mr Chatichai as being 'unusually wealthy' by an anti-corruption commission, and the presence of several old pro-military faces among his party MPs.

Mr Chuan, who has been in parliament since 1969, is a well-respected politician who may be able to find a workable blend to ensure some stability. That said, the most remarkable possible achievement might be in the manner of his eventual succession; it would be notable to be the first Thai prime minister to be replaced through the ballot-box rather than by the military.

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