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Ex-Thai opposition leader is 3d Thai premier in 4 months

Hoping to end months of turmoil, legislators chose an economist born in Britain.

Surrounded by supporters, Abhisit Vejjajiva listens during proceedings in the Thai parliament in Bangkok. The vote was called after Somchai Wongsawat was ousted from office 10 days ago.
Surrounded by supporters, Abhisit Vejjajiva listens during proceedings in the Thai parliament in Bangkok. The vote was called after Somchai Wongsawat was ousted from office 10 days ago.Read moreAPICHART WEERAWONG / Associated Press

BANGKOK - Thailand got its third prime minister in four months yesterday, after former opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was voted into power in a deal that many hope will end six months of political paralysis.

Abhisit, a Britain-born economist, won a parliamentary vote against former national police chief Pracha Promnok. The vote was called after Somchai Wongsawat was removed from office 10 days ago by the country's constitutional court, which found his party guilty of irregularities in elections last December.

About 200 supporters of the ousted government protested outside parliament, stoning lawmakers' cars as the legislators left the debate.

For months, political mobs have been a powerful factor in Thai politics. Violent antigovernment demonstrations made it difficult for Somchai's administration to function. The protests culminated in a weeklong occupation of the country's two main airports, crippling Thailand's vital tourism industry.

Abhisit, 44, has promised a rapid disbursement of government funds to try to revive the economy, but with tourism, foreign direct investment and exports all reeling from the double blow of global economic slowdown and domestic political turmoil, he faces substantial challenges.

"The first order for the new government is to restore confidence in the economy, both internationally and domestically," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "They need to come up with a rescue package."

Abhisit's Democrat Party won just over 34 percent of votes cast in last year's elections. He won yesterday's vote, 235-198, by persuading many members of the former ruling coalition to change sides. However, many observers believe that with its limited electoral mandate, the new government could be forced to call an election in the not too distant future.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial former prime minister who is the godfather of the political movement that put Somchai into office and lives in self-exile in Britain, warned in a televised address over the weekend that parliament members who changed sides would be punished at the ballot box the next time there are elections.

During the 13 days of intense politicking that followed Somchai's removal, both sides accused the other of offering money for votes.

The protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy, a minority, middle-class group, said they would return to the streets if any of Somchai's allies were to be made prime minister.

Many lawmakers who did change sides said they did so to avoid a repeat of the impasse.

Reaction to yesterday's vote underscored the country's deep divisions.

Abhisit and his party enjoy strong support from the middle class and many in the business sector. Many of his partisans view Thaksin's rural base as easily manipulated and subject to vote-buying.

"It's nice to have someone smart in office for a change," Nutta Tangtrakulchai, 26, a Bangkok office worker, told the Associated Press.

Thaksin supporters fear Abhisit will neglect the poor.

"Abhisit was born with a silver spoon in his mouth," said Chaiya Paitoonsiri, a taxi driver from Maha Sarakam province, 240 miles northeast of Bangkok. "He knows nothing but wealth and privilege. How can he solve our problems?"