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Thai PM offers referendum to end political crisis
Thailand Political 4851730
Anti-Government protesters sit guard outside Government House in Bangkok Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008. An unsuccessful strike by anti-government activists gave the beleaguered Thai prime minister some breathing room, but failed to derail their campaign to oust him, fueling worries about the health of Thailand's economy. - photo by Associated Press
    BANGKOK, Thailand — Thailand’s prime minister refused again on Thursday to cede to protesters determined to oust him, but offered an unconventional compromise — a referendum on his fate aimed at ending the political crisis that has paralyzed the government and raised fears of economic chaos.
    Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej hopes the vote will allow him to keep his job while placating the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which has vowed to continue its campaign, including occupying the seat of government, until Samak quits.
    The referendum will ask the public to choose between the alliance and the government, but many analysts say a simple yes-no vote is insufficient in the face of a complicated political crisis.
    The alliance ridiculed the plan, saying Samak will manipulate the vote, just as they allege he did during general elections in December 2007.
    ‘‘The referendum is an attempt by Mr. Samak to buy himself some more time in the office,’’ Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and one of the protest leaders, told The Associated Press.
    Before announcing the referendum, which caught the nation by surprise, Samak delivered a combative speech on national radio, again refusing to step down.
    ‘‘I will not abandon the ship, and I will take responsibility for the crew on board,’’ Samak said, peppering his speech with folksy language. ‘‘I am not resigning. I have to protect the democracy of this country.’’
    But some have said the referendum could aggravate rather than alleviate the political deadlock.
    ‘‘A referendum is normally used to test public approval on whether to go to war or pass an important law. It would not be effective as a tool to solve a complicated political crisis with many conditions and layers,’’ said Panithan Wattanayagorn, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
    ‘‘The problem is complex and nuanced and asking a yes or no question will only further divide the country,’’ Panithan said.
    Before any referendum can be held, the Senate must pass a law because current statutes do not provide for the possibility. Samak said once the law is passed, it would take about a month to hold the vote.
    The alliance, which claims to be apolitical, is a loosely knit group of royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents, and union activists. It wants Parliament to be revamped so most lawmakers are appointed rather than elected, arguing that Thailand’s impoverished rural majority is too susceptible to vote buying.
    The group has already had a hand in bringing down one government, when it staged demonstrations in 2006 that paved the way for the bloodless coup that removed then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office.
    Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, recently fled to Britain to escape corruption charges. The protesters say Samak is Thaksin’s stooge and is running the government for him by proxy. They accuse Samak’s government of corruption and making unconstitutional decisions.
    After months of protests in the capital, thousands of PAD supporters stormed the gates of the Government House, the stately domed building that houses Samak’s office, on Aug. 26. They have occupied the compound’s lush lawns, set up a thriving community under tents and refused to budge.
    Even though Samak imposed a state of emergency on Bangkok on Tuesday, the military has not stepped in to evict the protesters for fear it would lead to a bloodbath.
    Rioting between supporters of Samak and the alliance left one person dead and dozens injured early Tuesday, the only violence since the deadlock began.
    Still, the possibility of a military intervention looms in Thailand, which has experienced 18 coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
    The government’s failure to resolve the deadlock has also raised fears of an economic downturn, especially in Thailand’s crucial tourist industry, which is particularly susceptible to concerns about political instability.
    Since the beginning of the year, the Stock Exchange of Thailand index has fallen 24 percent. In the second quarter, the country’s economic growth slowed for the first time in more than a year. The central bank expects growth to ease further in the second half because of the political crisis.
    ‘‘The country is at risk of becoming ungovernable,’’ the Credit Suisse Group said in a report.
    Associated Press writers Ambika Ahuja, Jocelyn Gecker, Chris Blake and Busaba Sivasomboon contributed to this report.

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