Thailand Leader's Surprising Exit

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In the end, it was an abrupt, somber farewell. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took just 10 minutes of primetime TV Tuesday night to offer his resignation and call for national unity, before exiting stage right. Two days after a flawed parliamentary election that ended up producing more losers than winners, Thaksin said it was time for him to hand over power to an as yet unknown successor — though he would remain caretaker leader until a new government is formed. "We have no time to quarrel," he said. "I want to see Thai people unite and forget what has happened."

Thaksin, a telecom tycoon who took office in 2001, has sired plenty of quarrels lately. Since January his critics, centered around Bangkok and the insurgent-plagued southern part of the country, have used the $1.9 billion tax-free sale of his family-owned firm to foreign investors as a rallying cry for demonstrations demanding change. Their noisy campaign prompted Thaksin to dissolve parliament and call snap elections, confident that his party machine would deliver the necessary votes on Apr 2. It did — over 50% of Thai voters kept the faith with the ruling Thai Rak Thai party, especially in the poor countryside where Thaksin's healthcare and housing subsidies have been very popular. But the opposition boycott of the elections and nonstop protests sapped the ballotís power to redeem Thaksin.

Backed into a political corner, Thaksin tried to put a positive spin Monday on the poll results, claiming a victory despite the mounting pile of spoiled and ĎNo Voteí ballots. But his bravado didnít last long, particularly since he also faces a constitutional logjam over invalid races for 39 parliamentary seats that must be run again on April 23. As rumors swirled of his likely successors, Thaksin flew Tuesday afternoon to meet revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej at his seaside palace before making his brief farewell address. In it, he referred to the auspicious 60th anniversary of the kingís coronation, an event that will dominate Thailandís official calendar in June. Amid all the political jockeying, this deadline has always loomed large. Now it looks like a new politician will be leading the celebrations.