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Thailand awaits new government after prime minister's resignation

The resignation of Prem Tinsulanonda - the longest-ruling prime minister in Thailand's post-World War II history - has thrown the already confused Thai political scene into an even faster spin.

Thailand now awaits the outcome of political maneuvering of Army generals and the political parties over the shape of the next government. A crucial question will be the extent of military influence over the next prime minister.

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Prime Minister Prem's announcement that he is stepping down comes only eight days after an indecisive national election. Observers are not sure whether General Prem is voluntarily resigning or is being pushed aside by events or other forces.

The election had been carefully staged by the Army. It had been widely assumed that Mr. Prem - an ex-Army commander in chief - would stay on for another term of office, thereby preserving the Army's leading role in Thai politics.

General Prem did not run in the election, preferring to remain above politics. The Thai Constitution permits anyone other than a government employee, either general or civil servant, to become prime minister by parliamentary appointment. Being above politics was a situation that the amiable, gray-haired ''Pa'' Prem, as he is popularly nicknamed, found comfortable.

In announcing his retirement, he said he had no political ambition and had been prime minister long enough. He also said it was best for an elected member of Parliament to be prime minister.

That remark was hailed by at least one senior general as ''a democratic gesture.'' But only events in Parliament in the next few days will show if his gesture has brought the Thais closer to the complete parliamentary democracy that many have been striving for painfully for over half a century.

Parliament may actually be putting together a coalition government. Within an hour of General Prem's retirement announcement, one political party showed it could muster a majority.

The right-wing Chart Thai Party voted in its own nomination for speaker with a five-vote majority over other parties. It suggested that the party might therefore be able to form a government and provide a prime minister with the support of the elected House of Representatives.

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Since the election, Chart Thai has added to its numbers in Parliament by absorbing some smaller parties and several independent MPs, while forming alliances with two other parties. One of those parties is National Democracy, led by a former prime minister, Gen. Kriangsak Chomanan. National Democracy's 15 votes remain uncertain and could ultimately control the new government.

Their votes went with the majority in the election of the speaker, but the party under General Kriangsak - who was prime minister before General Prem - has not yet made any permanent alliance.

If he gave his support to the Social Action and Democrat parties, which fought the election on a democracy vs. dictatorship platform, General Kriangsak might give Thailand a civilian government with a popular mandate, a government that the Army would not favor. It is being said that General Kriangsak's price for the critical swing votes of his party might be the prime ministership.

The process of putting together a workable government is so complex and secret, with Army officers sitting in on some negotiations, that no sensible observer will predict the outcome. Even logical assumptions may be quickly confounded and nobody would be too surprised if an unknown emerged as prime minister or even if General Prem ended up staying on after all.

One crucial private meeting was held Tuesday night between the Army commander in chief, Gen. Arthit Kamlang-Ek, and Kukrit Pramoj, a former prime minister and leader of the fight for democracy against the Army. No details yet have been disclosed.

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