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Thailand Picks New Prime Minister After 15 Months of Military-Backed Rule


Thailand's governing coalition in parliament has chosen former Bangkok governor Samak Sundaravej as the country's new prime minister. Mr. Sundaravej is a close ally of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.

Seventy-two-year-old Samak Sundaravej is controversial for many people in Thailand. They accuse him of running in general elections last month as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Despite being forced from office, exiled, and banned from politics, Mr. Thaksin remains popular, especially among Thailand's poor.

Mr. Samak's People Power Party fought election fraud charges in the Thai Supreme Court this month and won, clearing the way for the party to form a coalition government with five other parties. Made up of Mr. Thaksin's allies, the PPP won the most seats in the lower house of parliament. On Monday, parliament voted to select Mr. Samak as the new Prime Minister.

Mr. Samak says that having served five times as a cabinet minister and three times as a deputy minister, he has the political credentials to lead the country. He is known for being gruff and outspoken. He tells VOA he is not Mr. Thaksin's puppet.

"Somebody would want to put that on me, but you see it's not that," Samak said. "The media asked me, 'are you a nominee of Mr. Thaksin?' I asked back the reporter, 'is the word nominee a bad word?' In this country 'nominee' is a good word."

The new prime minister says he is in regular contact with Mr. Thaksin, who has been watching events closely from Hong Kong. Mr. Samak has said he wants to bring the former Prime Minister back within the next few months.

Analysts say that for now, whether Mr. Thaksin returns is a relatively minor question to many people. Thailand's economy has stagnated since the military coup under an interim government that analysts say is widely regarded as inept. Political science professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak says many people are now looking to Mr. Samak to work quickly to jumpstart the economy before his coalition government falls apart.

"There are a lot of expectations right now in Thailand," Thitinan said. "People are fed up with the military, with the coup. People want answers. They want their expectations to be met. Some people want to go back to the policies under Thaksin. But overall, we want some performance."

Thitinan notes that Thailand has never had a coalition government that lived out its full term. He says the biggest danger now for the Samak-led coalition is to move the economy forward in ways that will not lead to another coup.

Thailand has had 18 military coups since it transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The latest, in September 2006, came after months of protests against Thaksin Shinawatra's government, which critics accused of corruption and abuse of power. His populist policies, however, drew the support of Thailand's urban and rural poor who now want to see that agenda resumed.


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