By Ploy Ten Kate
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva narrowly survived a parliamentary no-confidence vote on Saturday, ensuring his government remains in office in the run-up to what is likely to be a close election.
Abhisit was backed by 249 lawmakers, or 52 percent of the eligible house voters, in a censure motion after four days of debate marked by allegations of corruption, mismanagement and conflicts of interest leveled at him and nine of his ministers.
The number of votes against the Oxford-educated premier could reflect some dissatisfaction within his fractious six-party coalition, which his Democrat Party heads with a slim majority.
It is not, however, seen as an indication of his public support ahead of a parliamentary election expected by July.
Analysts say the poll is expected to be a close race between Abhisit's Democrats and the opposition Puea Thai Party and he would probably need to form another coalition to govern again.
All nine ministers passed no-confidence votes, but by narrow margins, several ministers receiving less support than the premier. The censure was conducted on a free-vote basis, meaning lawmakers may not all have voted along party lines.
The election comes at a critical time for Thailand, which is embroiled in a five-year-old political crisis characterized by violent demonstrations, lengthy blockades, disputed judicial rulings and military intervention.
Investors are hoping the poll will lead to greater stability. But analysts warn the elections may not go smoothly, with scope for foul play or challenges to the outcome from either side, leading to renewed street protests or even a coup.
The election will be the first real test of Abhisit's public support as he came to power in late 2008 in a parliamentary vote his critics say was influenced heavily by the army top brass.
Abhisit believes his party has the edge over Puea Thai, which is backed by ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who still retains considerable influence over Thai politics.
Thaksin, in exile to evade a two-year jail term for graft, closely followed the censure debate. He has told his supporters, who helped him win two election landslides, to vote for Puea Thai and help bring him home.
Although Abhisit survived the motion, the raft of allegations against his government could boost Puea Thai's public support in the run-up to polls, although the party has suffered a leadership crisis and is deeply divided.
Puea Thai accused ministers of helping certain companies win concessions for third-generation mobile phone services and transport projects as well as mismanagement and irregularities in a food price crisis.
They also accuse the government of being responsible for the deaths of scores of anti-government "red shirt" demonstrators during clashes with the army last year. The government rejected all the claims.
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ron Popeski)