Thai ruling party mulls PM candidates

September 10, 2008 12:00 am

, BANGKOK, September 10 – Thailand’s ruling party Wednesday said it was considering candidates for the premiership, backing off a vow to return the job to Samak Sundaravej, who was forced out by a court over his TV cooking shows.

The Constitutional Court on Tuesday stripped Samak of his post as prime minister, saying he had illegally accepted payments for hosting two food programmes.

The verdict only added to the political turmoil in Thailand, which has seen protesters barricading the main government complex for more than two weeks and a state of emergency imposed across the capital Bangkok.

Judges did not ban Samak from politics, and his People Power Party (PPP) said immediately after the ruling that they would re-elect him as prime minister.

But after a key coalition partner voiced concern over restoring Samak to power, the party backed down and said that it would consult its allies on possible candidates before a parliamentary vote set for Friday.

"For prime minister, we will consult again among PPP members in the next few days," deputy PPP leader Somchai Wongsawat told reporters after meeting with the Chart Thai party, the second-largest member of the coalition.

"I am confident that our six-party government will hold together strongly, and I am sure that there will be no rebellion," he said.

Somchai, the most senior deputy in Samak’s cabinet, is acting as a caretaker prime minister until the new premier is named.

His new role is certain to stoke Thailand’s political flames: Somchai is the brother-in-law of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup two years ago.

The protesters besieging the Government House compound first took to the streets against Thaksin nearly three years ago, accusing him of using his political office to enrich his multi-billion-dollar telecom empire.

The military cited the corruption claims to justify their coup in 2006. Thaksin now lives in exile in Britain to dodge the legal charges, which he says are politically motivated.

Hoping to prevent business and politics from mixing, a military-backed constitution approved last year included strict limits on outside employment by government officials.

Judges have now used that charter to force Samak from office over the cooking programmes that reportedly earned him no more than a few hundred dollars per show, which he said he used mainly to buy ingredients.

In a nation accustomed to military coups, Samak is the first Thai premier stripped of his office by a court order, the most dramatic move yet by an increasingly muscular judiciary.

Thai courts once tended to side with whatever government was in office.

But two years ago, at the height of protests against Thaksin, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej urged the nation’s judges to take a more decisive role in political cases.

Since then, the courts have become important players in Thai politics, judges dissolved Thaksin’s party, banned him from politics, and have already forced out three of Samak’s ministers.

But some analysts fear that the courts’ new-found strength could be running to the opposite extreme, with the tough verdict for Samak’s relatively light transgression.

"The law that they are using to say that Samak has to resign was designed to limit the influence of big business in politics," said political analyst Giles Ungpakorn.

"Samak’s cooking programme doesn’t really fit the bill. It isn’t the spirit of this law," he said. "It just adds to the confusion and the circus."

The protesters, who call themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), have already said that they will not leave Government House despite the verdict against Samak.

They are pushing a broader agenda to trim back Thailand’s democracy, saying only 30 percent of seats in parliament should be elected, a move that would limit the influence of poor voters who backed Samak and Thaksin.


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