- guardian.co.uk, Monday 15 December 2008 09.14 GMT
Thailand's opposition leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was today confirmed as Thailand's third prime minister in as many months after a tense vote in parliament.
Eton and Oxford-educated Abhisit, who heads the opposition Democrat party, gathered 235 votes against 198 by the former national police chief Pracha Promnok, a loyalist of the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Today's vote followed six months of instability caused by anti-government demonstrations that culminated late last month with a week-long takeover of Bangkok's two airports.
Protests erupted again today as hundreds of pro-Thaksin supporters attempted to block parliament after the vote. The demonstrators threw rocks at vehicles but most dispersed peacefully, saying they would gather again later today in the capital's historic section. Some protesters in the crowd vowed to return to parliament in two weeks to disrupt Abhisit's maiden speech.
Chanting "Abhisit, army nominee", the red-shirted demonstrators denounced the new prime minister as a frontman for the military, which ousted Thaksin in 2006 and has been accused of political meddling ever since.
Abhisit won support from 235 MPs from his Democrat party and a range of others, including a breakaway faction of the Puea Thai party that had backed Thaksin, who was convicted earlier this year on a conflict of interest charge. He needed a minimum of 219 votes to become prime minister.
Abhisit has said reviving growth through increased government spending will be his priority. At a news conference immediately after the vote, he said he would not outline any ideas or initiatives until he was sworn in by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
He has suggested there could be some reallocation of regional spending, but that would be sure to outrage voters in the populous north and north-east, where support for Thaksin and loathing of Abhisit runs deep.
Abhisit retains strong links with the UK: he was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and is a fan of Newcastle United football club. At 44, he is one of the youngest world leaders.
Despite today's protest outside parliament, analysts foresee relative stability in coming months after political chaos and the airport siege, which ended after a court ruling two weeks ago dissolved the ruling People's Power party (PPP) and two coalition partners. The remnants of the PPP regrouped as the Phuea Thai party.
The anti-Thaksin protest movement wants to purge politics of the former PM's influence and had threatened new but unspecified action if parliament elected a leader with links to him.
Abhisit and his party enjoy strong support from the middle classes and many in the business sector. But Sukhum Nuansakul, a political scientist at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University, said the hopes of many for a respite from political instability were likely to be short-lived. "The fundamental problem has not been resolved," Sukhum said. "A Democrat win sets the stage for another round of street protests, this time by pro-Thaksin groups."
Panithan Wattanayagorn, a political analyst from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, predicted Abhisit would face "among Thailand's roughest premierships". He said: "His leadership qualities are untested. He has not suggested a bold solution [to the crisis]. A lot of people have no patience for that, especially when public opinion is so extreme on both sides. That is his weakness and that lack of decisiveness and clear political stance could turn against him very quickly."
Thaksin's popularity among the rural masses remains strong even though he now lives in exile, having fled Thailand in October before he was convicted. He continues to play an active role in politics, and on Saturday he gave a pre-recorded video speech to a rally of more than 40,000 supporters at a stadium in central Bangkok.
Thaksin decried inappropriate interference in the political process – a reference to the army's alleged intervention in favour of the Democrats – and denounced politicians who had been loyal to him but switched their allegiances. The army traditionally wields a great deal of influence in Thai politics.
Abhisit told reporters yesterday his party would focus on national harmony and economic issues. Thailand's economy has taken a battering due to the global slowdown, a local climate of uncertainty and the seven-day stoppage of international flights that battered the country's essential tourism industry and stranded upward of 300,000 travellers. Some economists are predicting that south-east Asia's second-biggest economy will slip into recession next year.
The new prime minister was once forced to flee the stage at a Democrat rally in the northern city of Chiang Mai under a barrage of rotten vegetables.