Apichart Weerawong/AP
Thailand's Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat

Thai Parliament Elects New PM

September 17, 2008 06:09 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Somchai Wongsawat, a relative of fugitive former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, will replace ousted former prime minister Samak Sundaravej.

Parliament chooses Thaksin relative

Somchai Wongsawat, the former senior deputy prime minister in Samak's cabinet, and the brother-in-law of Thaksin, became Thailand's 26th prime minister on Wednesday. People's Power Party members and its coalition in Parliament voted 298-163 in favor of Somchai, against opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, reported the Bangkok Post.

But the turmoil in Thailand is far from over. Soon after the vote, leaders of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which took over the Government House in protest of Samak's rule several weeks ago, said that they do not support Somchai due to his ties with Thaksin. Samak was ousted last week for hosting cooking shows while serving as prime minister.

His fugitive father-in-law was deposed by a military coup in 2006 and is currently in exile in Britain. On the same day of Somchai's election, the Thai Supreme Court issued its third arrest warrant for Thaksin for missing his court date in Thailand.

Before the official announcement of his selection was made, Somchai ended the state of emergency that had been imposed on the city of Bangkok by Samak.

Despite misgivings about his political heritage, Somchai's low-key style is to some a welcome change from Samak's combative personality. Chart Thai Party leader Banharn Silpa-archa praised Somchai's approach, saying: "If he were a woman, I would fall in love with him," according to the International Herald Tribune.

Somchai said on Wednesday that one of his first concerns in office will be handling the fallout in Thailand from Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy and the global financial crisis.

Background: Samak bows out of Thai PM race

The 73-year-old former prime minister Samak Sundaravej, who was given the boot for hosting cooking shows while in office, dropped out of the prime minister race last week.

"He said he did his best to protect democracy. From now on it's up to the party to decide what to do next," said Samak aide Thirapol Noprampa.

Just a few days earlier, Samak had accepted the re-nomination of his political party, the People's Power Party. The move soon drew opposition from PPP factions fearing that it would contribute to the country's political turmoil.

Thailand’s Constitution Court ruled unanimously last week that Samak violated a law against working for private companies while prime minister by hosting two cooking TV shows. He had hosted the shows “Touring at 6 a.m.” and “Tasting and Grumbling,” which featured the prime minister cooking up traditional Thai dishes such as Tom Kha Salmon, with a side of political rants on various topics.

Opinion & Analysis: The selection of Somchai

Shawn W. Crispin of Asia Times Online says that the selection of Somchai, whom one government insider called a "low expectation candidate," is evidence of increasing weakness and division within the PPP. "The intra-party tensions signal Somchai's tenure will be weak and short-lived and raise new questions about how the electoral chips may fall at the next elections, expected to be held in the coming months after the passage of the 2009 budget or after the PPP is dissolved on electoral fraud charges, as an Election Commission ruling recently recommended."

Key Players: Somchai Wongsawat, Samak Sundaravej, Thaksin Shinawatra

Somchai Wongsawat, Thailand's 26th prime minister, is a 61-year-old former judge, the former education minister and the brother-in-law of ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra. As the former senior deputy prime minister in Samak's cabinet, he had been the acting leader of Thailand since Samak was forced out on Sept. 9. The IHT points out the contrast in his demeanor from that of his predecessor: "He is slight where Samak is hulking. Both studied law at Thammasat University in Bangkok, but Somchai talks in the tempered tones of a pedagogue, while Samak relishes the punch-up rhetoric of parliamentary debate. Somchai dispenses smiles to his questioners; Samak shoots glares."
Samak Sundaravej grew up in an aristocratic family and graduated from Thammasat University with a degree in law. Before becoming prime minister, he served in the interior ministry, was one of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s deputy prime ministers and was governor of Bangkok for four years. His rule, which began in January 2008, was marked by protests, a poor economy and rising inflation. He also came under criticism for his close ties with Shinawatra. Samak’s People Power Party (PPP) was formed from the remnants of Thaksin’s Thak Rak Thai party.
Thaksin Shinawatra, whose family owns a telecommunications conglomerate worth billions, is notable for being the first Thai prime minister to successfully complete a full term leading the elected government. In 2006, he was deposed in a bloodless military coup on charges of corruption and abuse of power after serving for five years. Thaksin moved to the U.K. and purchased the Manchester City football club, then returned to Thailand in 2007 when his party won elections. Last month, while he was still facing corruption charges, the courts charged his wife with tax fraud.

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