Monday, September 15, 2008

Thai party nominates Thaksin brother-in-law for prime minister

By Seth Mydans
Monday, September 15, 2008

BANGKOK: In a move that split party ranks and angered anti-government protesters, the governing party of Thailand nominated a brother-in-law of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Monday to be the next prime minister.

The nominee, Somchai Wongsawat, is the minister of education and has been the acting prime minister since Samak Sundaravej was forced out Sept. 9 when a court found him guilty of accepting pay for appearing on a cooking show.

Parliament is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the nomination of Somchai. But a revolt within the governing People Power Party is threatening to complicate the nomination in the 480-seat Parliament.

A faction that represents 73 of the party's 233 seats said it opposed Somchai because his relationship with Thaksin threatened to inflame anti-government protesters.

"We are prepared to choose a candidate who will not aggravate problems already faced by the country," said Banchong Wongtrairat, a spokesman for the rebel faction.

Leaders of the protest, which has blockaded the prime minister's office for nearly three weeks, responded angrily to the nomination, calling Somchai a front man for Thaksin and saying they would continue their protest until the government fell.

"We all know who Somchai is," said Somsak Kosaisuk, a protest leader. "Samak was just a nominee, but Somchai is the real actor linked to Thaksin's family. We will not give him the benefit of the doubt or give him a honeymoon period."

However the nomination plays out, some analysts said they expected the new government to be relatively short-lived, partly because of the continuing political instability in Thailand and partly because the party itself is at risk of being disbanded by a court for electoral fraud.

"I assume that this particular government will not last more than a couple of months and will probably call a snap election and see how the chips fall," said James Klein, the country representative for the Asia Foundation.

The People's Alliance for Democracy, which leads the protests, represents an establishment that is seeking to weaken electoral politics by putting in place a "new order" in which most members of Parliament would be appointed.

The protesters accuse the government of being a puppet of Thaksin, who was deposed in a coup in 2006, and of wanting to pave the way for his return to politics.

Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman, fled to London last month after she was convicted of tax evasion. Several corruption cases are pending against them, and the Supreme Court is scheduled to rule Wednesday in a corruption case against the couple, involving a land deal.

Somchai, a low-key politician, is 61 and is married to the younger sister of Pojaman. He has a long résumé that includes more than 20 years as a judge and a decade of service in government ministries, mostly predating Thaksin's rise to power.

He faced accusations of nepotism when he served in Thaksin's government.

As acting prime minister, he withdrew a state of emergency that was imposed Aug. 2 by Samak but was opposed by the military, which declined to enforce the measure.

His wife, Yaowapa Wongsawasdi, was an influential member of Parliament in Thaksin's party, Thai Rak Thai, before it was disbanded last year for electoral fraud.

Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon who remains hugely popular among Thailand's majority rural poor, is a power behind the People Power Party. Members of the party said he had been in touch with them by telephone as they maneuvered to select Samak's replacement.

The Election Commission recommended Feb. 2 that the People Power Party be disbanded for electoral fraud and sent the case to the Constitutional Court for a decision.

Its case is based on the conviction this year of a party leader for vote buying in the December election that brought the party to power.

If that happens, a substitute party has been formed to take its place. But it is not clear that members of the People Power Party would be eligible to run for re-election in this short-term set of circumstances.

Any pro-Thaksin party, given its strong electoral base, is generally considered to be assured re-election. But Klein said that with the passage of time since Thaksin's departure, factionalism had grown stronger and that there was no guarantee the party would continue to hold together.

Splits have now emerged twice over the nomination of a new prime minister. Before the rift Monday, the party was forced by infighting to reverse an announcement that it would re-nominate Samak for the job.

"It's maybe not a red flag," Klein said, "but a pink flag that Thaksin's influence on holding these factions together is weaker than it was a year ago."

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