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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 April 2006, 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK
Thaksin's long goodbye
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Bangkok

It is not often that a prime minister announces he has won an election one day, then steps down the next.

But nothing has been straightforward about Thailand's recent poll, nor about the man behind it, the controversial self-made billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin Shinawatra waves
There is no doubt Mr Thaksin remains influential in Thai politics

And even though he has now announced that he is stepping aside, there are still far more questions than answers about what will happen next.

For a start, many analysts doubt that Mr Thaksin has really left centre stage at all.

"He will still remain party leader, and he will obviously have a huge influence on the next person to become prime minister," said Chaiwat Khamchoo, a political scientist at Chulalungkorn University.

"I would not be surprised if Thaksin found himself an important position in the new parliament," added analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak. "He's still a force to be reckoned with."

Even some of Mr Thaksin's detractors have only given the news of his exit a cautious welcome.

"He's trying to dictate the terms of his departure," Korn Chatikavanij, a spokesman for the main opposition Democrat Party, told reporters on Wednesday.

But there is no doubt that Mr Thaksin's announcement has certainly changed the stakes.

For one thing, the demonstrators who have spent the past few months holding rallies accusing the prime minister of corruption and demanding his resignation are now packing up to go home.

"We should be satisfied at the moment, even though it isn't exactly all we want," said a key protest organiser, Chamlong Srimuang.

Future unclear

The embattled prime minister called last weekend's snap elections to show that he was still supported by the majority of the country, despite the regular rallies against him.

But the move backfired when the three main opposition groups decided to boycott the poll, claiming it was not legitimate.

23 January: Thaksin family sells 49.6% stake in telecoms firm Shin Corp
4 February: 50,000 attend rally in Bangkok demanding Thaksin's resignation; similar rallies continue in the capital
24 February: Thaksin dissolves parliament and calls snap election
27 February: Three main opposition parties say they will boycott the poll
2 April: Thais vote for new government amid opposition boycott
3 April: Thaksin says his Thai Rak Thai party has won more than 50% of vote
4 April: Thaksin says he will step down

Although his party, Thai Rak Thai, won a majority of the votes, the high number of protest "no" votes failed to give Mr Thaksin the convincing mandate he needed, and undoubtedly played a large part in convincing him to step down as prime minister.

But whatever Mr Thaksin's role in the future, there are several other questions that have yet to be resolved - not least the problem of how Thai Rak Thai can form a government.

The party cannot form a legal government, because the law requires all 500 seats to be filled in order for parliament to convene, and these bizarre one-horse race elections have ended with nearly 40 vacant seats.

The election commission has said that by-elections will be held in a few weeks, but there is no guarantee that the candidates will get in a second time round, or even a third, prompting the question of what happens when the 30-day deadline for forming a government expires.

"There's just no provision in the constitution for what happens next," said Mr Chaiwat.

"We'll just have to wait and see," he said, adding that the ruling party might have to find a way to change the constitution to solve the problem.

Opposition sidelined

There is yet another dilemma facing Thai politicians.

Because just one major party took part in the election, just one party will form the vast majority of the new government - a situation almost unheard of in a democratic country.

Abhisit Vejjajiva
It's like the system has been invaded by some kind of a disease. It might hurt in the short term, but it's necessary for the health of the country's democracy
Abhisit Vejjajiva,
Democrat Party leader

The opposition Democrats took a huge risk when they decided to boycott the elections, because although they managed to push their arch-rival into stepping down, they will now have to watch Thai politics from the sidelines.

"I don't think the Democrats will be able to do very much during this new government term," said Mr Thitinan, "so there will be few checks and balances limiting Thai Rak Thai."

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva denied this would be too much of a problem, saying that by boycotting the elections, the party had already proved it could force political reform outside the parliamentary agenda.

Analysts predict that this strange new one-party government will not last more than a year - and that its sole function will be to redraft the constitution to ensure the current political quagmire is not repeated.

While this will paralyse many parts of Thai politics in the medium term, the opposition believes this is a sacrifice worth making.

"It's like the system has been invaded by some kind of a disease," said Mr Abhisit. "It might hurt in the short term, but it's necessary for the health of the country's democracy."

'Learning process'

This is an unprecedented time in Thai politics, where little is clear and the outlook seems to change on an almost daily basis.

But at least there is one silver lining to this continuing saga. In the past few weeks, the Thai public was becoming increasingly concerned that the standoff between Mr Thaksin's supporters and detractors would end in violence, as has happened many times in Thai history.

With Mr Thaksin's departure, this danger has been averted.

"I think this has been a great learning process for Thai politics," said analyst Chris Baker.

"The country has come out to have its say in the election, and the city has come out on the streets. Both have had their say, and they have done it without bloodshed," he said.

"There may be problems ahead, but this is truly a democracy."

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