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Thai Parliament Elects Somchai Prime Minister


Thailand's parliament approved the candidate from the People Power Party, Somchai Wongsawat, to be the next prime minister. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, Mr. Somchai says national reconciliation will be his priority, after weeks of anti-government protests.

House speaker Chai Chidchob announced the results of Wednesday's parliament vote for prime minister. Chai says Mr. Somchai was backed by 298 lawmakers in the House of Representatives.

Mr. Somchai has been acting prime minister since last week, when Samak Sundaravej was forced to step aside after a court found him guilty of a conflict of interest. Both men are members of the People Power Party, which leads the six-party coalition government.

Mr. Somchai's supporters cheered their candidate outside the parliament before the vote.

The long-time senior bureaucrat takes up the reins with Thai society deeply polarized between supporters of his brother-in-law, former Prime Minister Thaksin, and those who oppose him. Mr. Thaksin's critics accuse him of being corrupt and authoritarian, and say the PPP-led government acts on his behalf.

Mr. Thaksin, who led his allies to two national election victories, was ousted in a coup in 2006. He fled to Britain last month during his trial on corruption. His supporters are chiefly the poor and rural residents, while most of his critics are from wealthier urban areas.

The People's Alliance for Democracy leads the opposition. Thousands of PAD supporters have camped outside the main government administration building for weeks. Originally they called for Mr. Samak's resignation, but now they vow to continue their blockade until the PPP is out of power.

PPP spokesman Kudeb Saikrajang says Mr. Somchai's first task is to ease political tensions.

"The party has made it clear to the public that the most important task for us is to promote reconciliation - or what we call national reconciliation - to bring back unity to the country and to assure the public that the PPP will avoid confrontation with any group of people in the society," said Kudeb.

Buranaj Samutharak, a spokesman for the opposition Democrats, says his party will watch to see whether the government allows corruption cases against Mr. Thaksin to proceed and whether it pursues unpopular constitutional changes.

"We'll have to wait and see whether the government succeeds in addressing some of the main concerns of the people which have led to the present state of political crisis," said Buranaj.

Some political analysts say Mr. Somchai, who is known for his gentlemanly manner, may not be able to ease tensions. If not, they say the crisis could continue until there are new elections, or something else, such as a military coup, changes the government.

Also on Wednesday, a Thai court postponed issuing the verdict in a corruption case against Mr. Thaksin. Instead, the court issued new arrest warrants for him and his wife and set a new hearing date for October 21.

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