BANGKOK: Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's embattled prime minister, hinted lately he might "consider" stepping down from office temporarily to end a tense political impasse triggered by allegations he has abused his powers.
The premier, campaigning in the impoverished northeast, said late this week he saw merit in handing power to a trusted deputy to defuse the mounting tension but offered no details of when the move might come or how long it might last.
"It is a good idea and I am considering this," Mr Thaksin said, although he insisted he would not bow to "mob rule", his description of the tens of thousands of protesters, mainly from Bangkok's middle-class, calling for his resignation.
"I will disclose my decision when the time is right, and the decision will be based on the benefit of the country, not influenced by the demands of those losers," he said.
Hours later, the king's chief adviser made a rare appeal from the palace that those involved in the stand-off should take steps to end the crisis for the sake of peace, and the country.
In a brief statement, Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister, said: "All those involved in the situation are grown-ups, and knowledgeable and have good intentions. I would like to appeal to all parties involved to think and act for the best for our country and our people."
Mr Thaksin's admission that he was mulling a tactical withdrawal from power came amid growing predictions that elections scheduled for April 2 could leave Thailand facing a constitutional crisis.
Mr Thaksin, who is popular with the rural poor, called snap elections last month in the hope that winning a popular mandate would silence the row over his family's tax-free sale of Shin Corp, the telecommunications group he founded, to Singapore's Temasek.
But opposition parties are boycotting the election, insisting they are unwilling to participate in a "political laundering process" that does not address the question of whether Mr Thaksin abused his power to benefit his family's business.
At best, the election now stands to return a one-party parliament with little real legitimacy in the eyes of powerful Bangkok constituencies.
Many predict that low voter turnout, particularly in opposition strongholds, will mean the poll fails to deliver a full perliament, thus preventing selection of a new premier.
Chris Baker, an author of several books on Thai politics, said Mr Thaksin "knows the game is up and he has to find a nice way out" of the crisis. He said there was a feeling that by April 2 the damage to Mr Thaksin "could get even worse".
But Korn Chatikavanij, deputy leader of the opposition Democrat party, said Mr Thaksin, who has already dissolved parliament, may not have the legal authority to hand power to a designated successor. "My sense now is that the time has passed when he can dictate the manner of his departure," Mr Korn said.
The election commission, which is widely seen as supportive of the prime minister, lately said it might be forced to postpone the vote after disqualifying candidates who did not meet electoral requirements.
While a poll delay would give Mr Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party a chance to replacec andidates who were disqualified, analysts said any postponement would have little impact.
Thailand's constitution also requires any candidate running unopposed to receive the support of at least 20 per cent of a constituency's voters - a threshold Thai Rak Thai will find tough to meet in some areas.
An earlier FT Syndication Service report also by Amy Kazmin adds: Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's prime minister, warned the other day that he was prepared to declare a state of emergency in Bangkok if the continuing mass protests against his leadership turned violent.
The premier's threat came as an estimated 100,000 protesters, carrying signs that read "Change Through Peace" and "Non-Violence", marched through old Bangkok, calling for Mr Thaksin's resignation.
Though the demonstration wilted in the afternoon heat, protesters started regrouping in the evening and have pledged to keep up their action in Bangkok's government district until the premier steps down. Fears of violence have been stoked by a march of the premier's rural supporters on Bangkok and memories of past bloodshed in similar confrontations, most recently in 1992.
Campaigning in Thailand's impoverished north-east -- where he is hugely popular among the rural poor -- Mr Thaksin said he had "in his hands" a draft decree imposing a state of emergency in Bangkok, which he said he would sign "if the situation becomes violent".
Such a move would give the premier sweeping powers to monitor and detain people, including the right to control public discourse, impose curfews, ban public gatherings, tap phones and arrest people deemed security threats, even without warrants.
While analysts said it would have serious repercussions for Thailand's economy and international standing, Mr Thaksin could take such a step if he felt it was necessary to ensure that controversial April 2 elections went ahead.
"What (Thaksin] is trying so hard not to be is dictatorial, and not to be compared with other dictators in the past," Chaiwat Satha-anand, a Thammasat University political scientist, said. "It would not be in his interest to [declare an emergency], but he will try whatever it takes to have the election on April 2."
Meanwhile, Mr Thaksin's caretaker cabinet approved a 5.0 per cent pay increase for state enterprise workers, hoping to shore up the support of a powerful constituency that could swell the ranks of anti-government protesters if they turned out in force.
Mr Thaksin has been struggling to subdue an intense public outcry against his leadership ever since his family's tax-free Bt73bn ($1.9bn) sale of its 49 per cent stake in Shin Corp, the communications empire he founded, to Temasek Holdings, the Singapore government's investment arm.
Temasek, which was required to make a tender offer for all outstanding Shin Corp shares, announced lately that it had now acquired 96.3 per cent of the company, which analysts say means Temasek must either reduce its holding or delist within a year.