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SIX MONTHS INTO THIS GOVT
Despite renewed political pressure and economic uncertainty, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is still voicing staunch confidence in his "Strong Thailand" stimulus plan, saying the country is not ready for an early election.
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In an exclusive interview with The Nation, Abhisit said the existing national divide would stop a truly democratic election from
"I'm willing to hold an election if, at some point, there is a consensus that an election is the only way out," he said. "I won't cling to power or try to stay until the end of my term. All I want to say is I don't want to see an election while some undemocratic political groups continue obstructing real [free and fair] competition. So, I won't hold an election as long as they still block [us] from entering certain areas."
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The interview, which marked the government's six months in office, was held against the backdrop of serious political issues coming to a head, namely the Election Commission's attempt to disqualify 13 Democrats, a breakthrough in the investigation into the assassination attempt on Sondhi Limthongkul and growing pressure on Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya to quit.
The investigation into the Sondhi case is already threatening to sour the government's ties with the police and the military, whereas the Kasit issue has further affected Abhisit's relations with both the red and yellow shirts. In addition to the stormy relationship with his uneasy coalition allies, speculation about an early House dissolution has been rife and persistent.
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However, yesterday Abhisit showed no signs of giving up any time soon, as he hit back at critics comparing his performance to that of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
"Give me another two or three years, and I assure you, I will deliver more than Thaksin. I have to fix some of his legacies such as the Elite card, the 'We Care' housing project and the damages sustained by the rice market. If Thaksin did indeed solve the poverty problem, why do we still have so many poor people?" Abhisit asked.
The economic challenges are tough, but they are not un-expected, he said, adding that the magnitude of the political divide and related crises had exceeded his expectations.
He confirmed that the economic growth this year would be minus 3 to 5 per cent, but said the economy should bounce back in the fourth quarter. His government's priority is to ensure a 1- to 2-per-cent GDP growth next year.
"The most important thing is to make sure the second phase of the Strong Thailand stimulus plan moves quick and effectively," he said. "It's imperative that we complete the programme, which - if it goes ahead as planned in the next two or three years - is guaranteed to deliver a massive change for the country. This programme seeks to arrest the decline of key foundations that have not been attended to over the past few years."
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He also voiced confidence in the potentially explosive plan of overhauling land taxes and the government's efforts to revamp ways of guarantee-ing crop prices. The government, he added, will also push for state banks to provide more loans to the private sector.
"We are very aware that the credit crunch and issue of interest and exchange rates remain the most frustrating aspects as far as the private sector is concerned," he said.
"We have been in constant contact and discussions with the Bank of Thailand, which we guarantee will remain independent. I think the crux of the interest-rate matter is that if rates drop any further, the question will arise as to whether it is really helping the economy. Moreover, if the banks don't lend, it won't matter how low the rates are," he said.
Abhisit also dismissed rumours about Suthep Thaugsuban's loyalty and denied that his ties with the power broker had soured to the point where the government's stability was being affected.
"We are still the same. We have been working together for a long time and there are no problems between us. Sometimes, we have some different opinions, but that is normal," Abhisit said.