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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on Tuesday Thailand's election was a tight race but his party could still win despite opinion polls showing it falling behind, and he predicted a new wave of political instability if the opposition formed the next government.
In an interview with Reuters, he acknowledged his party was slipping behind in the race against the opposition Puea Thai Party led by Yingluck Shinawatra, 43-year-old sister of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"It is still a very tight race. We have fallen behind slightly," he said.
Asked to elaborate on what he saw as the risks if the opposition prevailed in the election on July 3, he said: "Ruining the rule of law, causing instability and therefore a loss of economic opportunity."
Abhisit said it was still possible that his Democrat Party could win as many as 200 of the available 500 seats, but that if it won less than the roughly 170 achieved in the last election in 2007, he would step down as party leader.
Urbane and educated at England's Oxford University, Abhisit, 46, was one of the world's youngest prime ministers when he came to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in December 2008.
Against the odds, he has clung to power since then, riding out a string of violent street protests by "red shirt" supporters of Thaksin, a multi-millionaire who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives abroad to avoid a jail term for graft.
Despised by the military top brass and royalist elites, the populist Thaksin looms large over the election, even from his exile in Dubai.
The sudden rise to prominence of his telegenic sister as leader of the Puea Thai Party has electrified the opposition's campaign, not only in the rural northeast -- long the backbone of support for Thaksin -- but also in Bangkok.
"Yingluck is new on the scene. You always get a bit of a bounce ... and the media always responds to a new face," Abhisit said.
"She needs to learn about government because she has no experience and that can be quite tough. There is always that question of whether she can be her own person."
Weeks of protests in Bangkok by Thaksin's red shirts were ended by military intervention in May last year and 91 people died. The movement quickly regrouped and a Reuters report this month showed hundreds of communities in the northeast had branded themselves "Red Shirt Villages" in defiance of central government.
Asked about the phenomenon, Abhisit said: "Why try to divide the country further?"
Additional reporting by Martin Petty and Vithoon Amorn; Editing by Alan Raybould