New Thai leader vows to tackle economic, political woes

New Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on Wednesday his Cabinet would tackle the country’s political and economic woes, and vowed to prevent a repeat of the recent crippling airport sieges.

Thailand’s king issued a decree on Wednesday allowing Democrat Party leader Abhisit to govern, two days after the Oxford graduate won a parliamentary vote with the help of defectors from the former ruling party.

British-born Abhisit was then to address the nation to outline his policies, with expectations high after six months of protests against the previous government that peaked in the Bangkok airport seizures late last month.

“I want to reassure everyone that I will choose competent people to implement policies that are crucial to revive our country,” the 44-year-old Abhisit said.

He later said his government would announce an economic stimulus programme by January, after meeting industry figures who projected that unemployment could hit one million next year.

The programme would “create confidence in every sector”, Abhisit said.

Abhisit’s Cabinet list is expected on Wednesday or Thursday and a hotly tipped candidate for finance minister is Korn Chatikavanij, a former manager at investment bank JPMorgan Chase and the Democrats’ deputy leader.

Korn studied with Abhisit at Oxford, taking the same course, and said on Wednesday he was “ready for the finance minister post” if asked.

“The issue of the economy is very challenging,” he said, adding that Thailand not only had to repair investor confidence shattered by the dragging political turmoil but also deal with the global financial crisis.

Security was tight at the party headquarters for the issuing of the royal command, following violent protests outside Parliament on Monday by supporters of the old government.

Around 300 policemen, including anti-riot officers stood guard, while a bomb disposal team with two sniffer dogs checked the compound.

In a separate meeting with tourism industry representatives, Abhisit said he regretted the damage done to the country by the week-long occupation of Suvarnabhumi international airport and the smaller Don Mueang domestic hub.

Up to 350 000 passengers were stranded and the economy battered by the anti-government protests by the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which counts a Democrat Party lawmaker as one of its key leaders.

The PAD accused the previous ruling party of being a corrupt front for ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and of trying to damage the monarchy.

“We regret the incident and will not allow it to happen again,” Abhisit said.

The airport closures only ended after a court on December 2 dissolved the ruling pro-Thaksin People Power Party (PPP) over electoral fraud charges and forced then-premier Somchai Wongsawat from office, creating the opening for Abhisit.

Abhisit, who ended his party’s eight years in opposition with his appointment on Monday, faces further protests by Thaksin’s supporters.

Chinawat Haboonpad, one of the leaders of the so-called “red shirts”, said supporters had started gathering in Bangkok’s historic district and planned to march to parliament when Abhisit gives his policy address next week.

Twice-elected Thaksin was overthrown in a military coup in September 2006 and although he lives in exile to escape a jail term on corruption charges, Thailand remains deeply divided between his supporters and detractors.

The telecoms tycoon alienated elements of the old elite in the palace, military and bureaucracy—the PAD’s core support base—who saw his popularity as a drain on their power.

But the urbane Abhisit has repeatedly failed to connect to Thaksin’s support base among the poor, and his party came a distant second to the PPP in elections a year ago.—AFP

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