Thai protests will continue despite election of new PM


THAILAND:PROTESTERS BESIEGING the office of the Thai prime minister vowed to stay in place in spite of parliament's election of a new premier yesterday.

Somchai Wongsawat, brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted as prime minister in a military coup in September 2006, won a vote by 298-163 .

A 61-year-old career bureaucrat and the deputy leader of the People's Power Party (PPP), Mr Somchai received solid backing from the PPP's five coalition partners.

Mr Somchai called for reconciliation to end the political crisis that has paralysed Thailand since January 2006, when Mr Thaksin's family sold its telecommunications empire in a tax-free $1.9 billion (€1.3 billion) deal, triggering massive protests.

"It is time for Thailand to reconcile," the former judge told reporters. "We do not hate each other, so we should not let hatred prevent us from tackling the immediate problems the country is facing."

However, leaders of the People's Alliance of Democracy (PAD), which led massive 2006 protests against Mr Thaksin and which began occupying Government House in Bangkok three weeks ago in an effort to push out then prime minister Samak Sundaravej, pledged to continue their siege until "the remnants of Thaksin's regime are gone".

The new prime minister "might have a gentlemanly nature, a soft-spoken style and might have a better reputation than everyone else [in the ruling party], but blood is thicker than water", said Somsak Kosaisuk, a PAD leader.

With his new office still besieged and the army unwilling to evict the protesters, Mr Somchai's administration will start working out of Bangkok's former international airport.

However, his tenure is likely to be short-lived, with many analysts expecting him to call elections soon after a court ruling, now threatening his party's survival.

In the coming months, the courts are expected to dissolve the PPP - as they did Mr Thaksin's former Thai Rak Thai party - for alleged electoral malfeasance, and to ban its executives from politics.

Mr Somchai, who entered politics only last year, was elevated to the premiership after a court removed Mr Samak for violating conflict of interest laws with his paid guest appearances on a television cookery show.

Beyond a change of personnel, the PAD - which has the tacit backing of influential elites in the military - wants a radical overhaul of the political system to reduce the power of the rural electorate, Mr Thaksin's traditional support base.

"I think the government is trying to buy time and move towards a general election," said Giles Ungpakorn, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist.

"They are worried about dissolving parliament and then having the party dissolved by the court. They think it would be better for them to have that happen and then call the general election."

- (Financial Times service)