Thaksin ally elected as new Thai prime minister

Thai lawmakers elected Samak Sundaravej, an ally of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, as the nation’s new Prime Minister on Monday, restoring civilian leadership after 16 months of military rule.

Samak, a veteran politician in his own right, is widely expected to try to clear the way for Thaksin to return to Thailand.

The election of such a close ally cements a stunning political turnaround for Thaksin, who was toppled by the military in September 2006 and since then has been living in self-imposed exile.

Samak won 310 votes, defeating opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party who won 163 seats, speaker Yongyut Tiyapairat said.

“Samak received a majority of the votes in this chamber, which means that Parliament has elected Samak as Prime Minister,” Yongyut said.

A charismatic yet deeply divisive figure, he will take office and form his Cabinet only once King Bhumibol Adulyadej has endorsed him, a formality that could take a few days.

Royalist generals in the military who led the coup that ousted Thaksin had spared no effort in trying to crush his political machine.

Junta-appointed authorities barred him from politics, banned his political party, and froze about $2-billion worth of his assets. The self-made billionaire has been living in Britain, where he bought Premiership football club Manchester City, and still faces criminal corruption charges at home.

But Thaksin, who remains widely popular in Thailand, tapped Samak (72) to rally supporters through the People Power Party (PPP).

It duly swept to victory in December’s elections, falling just short of an absolute majority in Parliament, and now leads a six-party coalition with two thirds of the lower house’s 480 seats.

Samak, who overcame doubts about his record and his gruff manner by openly campaigning as Thaksin’s proxy, was first elected to Parliament in 1975 and has held top Cabinet posts under civilian and military governments.

He was a popular elected leader of Bangkok from 2000 to 2004, even though he is saddled with heavy political baggage from his alleged links to bloody crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in 1976 and 1992.

Samak remains under investigation for corruption over a purchase of fire trucks for Bangkok during his time as governor, a post equivalent to mayor.

As voting got under way in Parliament, he promised to reporters that he would not celebrate his victory but would continue to lead a normal life in his new office.

“I will still go to the market to buy groceries before returning home to cook and share meals with my wife. There will be no celebration. I will continue with my normal life,” he said.

Although he is known for fiery outbursts during press conferences, he also hosts television talk shows and a cooking programme that draws viewers in with his folksy style.

However many voters, especially in Bangkok, are turned off by his abrasive demeanour. A survey released on Monday found that only 44% of Thais support Samak as prime minister.

Analysts say that in important ways Samak will remain beholden to Thaksin, whose political clout and pocketbook are still powerful.

“On day to day matters, Samak will have some autonomy, based on his experience, his own stature. But on the overall direction, obviously Thaksin will be the determinant of the major direction of a Samak-led government,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University. – AFP

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