BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s prime minister survived a parliamentary no-confidence vote on Wednesday brought by the opposition after weeks of political protests during which 88 people were killed and both tourism and the economy suffered.
The victory will give Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva some political breathing room, easing pressure from within parliament to hold a quick general election.
But the narrow margin of his victory highlighted an unstable relationship within his six-party ruling coalition that was stitched together in December 2008.
The opposition had accused the government of violating the human rights of thousands of anti-government protesters whose nine-week demonstration from mid-March descended into urban warfare and the worst political violence in modern Thai history.
The government also stood accused of corruption and economic mismanagement, while the foreign minister faced accusations of disloyalty to the monarch — a serious allegation in a country with some of the world’s toughest lese-majeste laws.
After two days of parliamentary grilling broadcast live on television, Abhisit won 246 votes with 186 against.
“Abhisit has emerged reasonably strong from the debate, at least among the powerful middle classes,” said Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, head of the National Institute of Development Administration.
“Since he is the incumbent who has support of the coalition, he won’t feel the need to go to the polls soon,” he said.
But other cabinet members won by narrower margins, in some cases winning barely half of the 475 parliamentary votes.
The vote threatens to widen a rift between two small coalition parties after a faction in one withheld support for some ministers from the other.
Abhisit said he had assigned his deputy to smooth over the rift and make sure it did not undermine stability.
Stock investors had expected Abhisit to win the vote and the benchmark SET index ended 1.18 percent higher after the central bank kept its policy interest rate unchanged.
Separately to events in parliament, the central bank left its main interest rate unchanged at 1.25 percent but said it was ready to raise it in July if there was more stability and euro zone problems eased.
The economy expanded faster than anticipated in the first quarter of 2010 but activity slowed in April, partly because of politics.
The country’s main airport operator said it was confident of making a net profit in April-June, although earnings would be lower than the previous quarter as the violence had dragged down passenger numbers.
The opposition Puea Thai Party, the latest in a series of political parties led or backed by ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said the government was at fault for the weeks of violence in which nearly 1,800 were wounded.
Its speakers said excessive measures were used by troops in attempts to surround two protest sites before they finally dispersed the demonstrators on May 19.
The Oxford-educated Abhisit said shadowy militants among the peaceful demonstrators triggered the bloodshed to discredit his government. He promised an independent investigation.
Chalerm Yoobamrung, chairman of the opposition, said on Tuesday Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya had tried to undermine the country’s revered monarchy with “wretched and vile” comments about reform of the royal institution — a rare accusation against the royalist-backed government.
Chalerm was referring to comments made by Kasit in a speech in April at Washington’s Johns Hopkins University, in which he said Thailand should consider how the monarchy could be reformed in a globalised world.
Lese-majeste, or insults to the royal institution, carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison in Thailand. The Democrat Party-led government is popular among royalists and few allegations of disloyalty have been made against it.
The mostly poor rural and urban protesters, broadly allied with Thaksin, had demanded an early election, saying Abhisit had no popular mandate after coming to power in a parliamentary vote at the head of a coalition assembled with help from the military.
Abhisit says he was voted into office by the same parliament that picked his Thaksin-allied predecessors.
Puea Thai was formed after the ruling pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party was dissolved for electoral fraud. Its previous incarnation, Thai Rak Thai, was disbanded after a 2006 coup that removed Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail term for graft and new charges of terrorism.
Writing by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Robert Birsel and Paul Tait