By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's government survived a no-confidence vote on Wednesday, days after clashes in Bangkok between protesters and riot police in the largest demonstration against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's 16-month-old administration.
Yingluck has enjoyed a period of stability after years of upheaval and her government's better-than-expected performance in the debate, coupled with the low turnout for Saturday's protest which quickly fizzled out, strengthen her leadership while offering a reminder of Thailand's stubborn political divisions.
Her Puea Thai Party and coalition partners dominate the lower house and comfortably survived the televised, three-day debate during which the opposition focused on a rice intervention scheme that it says is riddled with corruption.
"We incurred losses trying to help Thailand's poor farmers but the scheme is transparent," Yingluck said.
The opposition accused the government of allowing private companies with ties to it to benefit from the policy.
"The scheme allows the government to monopolize the sale of rice. Corruption is just one side-effect of a flawed scheme," said opposition leader and former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva.
The opposition is still threatening to lodge a complaint with the National Anti-Corruption Commission over the rice policy but, after seeing off the protesters and defeating the censure motion, the government can brush it off, analysts said.
"Accusations of foul play will keep the government off-balance but won't hurt it," said Siripan Nogsuan, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
After the early clashes, Saturday's rally by the royalist Pitak Siam group petered out by evening and the authorities lifted special security regulations brought in to control it.
Some 20,000 protesters had accused Yingluck of being a puppet for her brother, fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and lives in Dubai to avoid a jail sentence handed down for abuse of power in 2008. He claims the charges were politically motivated.
"Our country is in turmoil because your government is unable to separate personal matters from national ones," said Abhisit, referring to an amnesty plan the opposition says is designed to help Thaksin come home without serving time in jail.
Thaksin, a billionaire former telecoms tycoon, remains a divisive figure, reviled as corrupt and authoritarian by the elite and revered as a populist hero by the poor. He has been a focal point of protests since 2005, accused by royalists of trying undermine Thailand's popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
"It's simply not over and the royalist groups will organize another protest but they need to win the public over or they will smell defeat again," said Kan Yuenyong, director of Siam Intelligence Unit (SIU), a private think tank in Bangkok.
In 2008, yellow-shirted members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) seized government offices, occupied Bangkok's main airports for eight days and helped bring down two pro-Thaksin prime ministers.
But its influence has waned amid internal splits and a loss of support, and the group distanced itself from Saturday's protest.
On Monday Boonlert Kaewprasit, a former general, quit as leader of Pitak Siam after the failure of the rally.
The military top brass had shown no sign of supporting him.
"The military can be persuaded to intervene but right now it is not worth the risk," said analyst Siripan.
(Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat; Editing by Alan Raybould and Jonathan Thatcher)