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Thailand's new premier could face rough road ahead. Chatichai must please military and six parties of his coalition

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Thailand has hopped on a global trend toward democracy with the graceful exit of a unelected prime minister in favor of an elected one. This was made easier by a fast-growing economy, by the King's blessing, and by a military fed up with its own legacy of coups. But the future for the new government under businessman-politican Chatichai Choonhaven is far from settled.

Even Mr. Chatichai, the elected member of Parliament who now heads up a patchwork six-party coalition formed last week, hinted at his shaky prospects. ``I think we are heading down a more democratic road,'' he said after being approved by the King. But he added, ``The country has to learn to walk before it can run.''

The all-important horse-trading for Cabinet posts by the coalition's partners has yet to be wrapped up. The parties set Aug. 12 as their deadline for a compromise.

Lingering splits over Cabinet selections from the 1986 election helped precipitate the collapse of the last coalition, leading to the July 24 parliamentary elections.

In the country's nascent democracy, politicians who often buy votes rather than earning them with public service expect a return on their investments - a high-level job in a ministry. Total spending by the candidates in the latest campaign is estimated at over $100 million.

The resulting corruption, according to Western diplomats and academic observers, is Thailand's Catch-22: Why give politicians more power if they abuse it, but how will they stop abusing it unless they are given more responsibility for running the nation as legitimate politicians?

Parliament, up to now, has been treated as the nation's fourth estate, after the military, the monarchy, and an entrenched elite bureaucracy. As a result, rich businessmen largely dominate the fifteen political parties, competing for Cabinet posts.

Outgoing Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda has been credited with wisely trying to move Thailand out of this trap. But after eight years, three elections, and two coup attempts, he called its quits, surprising most observers.

``He's like a popular boxer who hangs up the gloves while remaining champion,'' wrote former Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj in the Siam Rath newspaper.

Mr. Prem, a reluctant prime minister and a former general, never ran for Parliament. He was the country's longest serving prime minister - but only as a compromise choice of political parties, none of whom could win a majority of parliamentary seats.


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