Court tells Samak to step down

Verdict rules Thai premier's appearance on television cookery show represents conflict of interest and contravenes constitution.

Thailand's Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, right, talks with a vegetable seller while touring a market before holding his cabinet meeting Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008 in Udon Thani province, northeastern Thailand. Thai constitution court will later on Tuesday have a verdict on his qualification. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong) *** Local Caption ***  AW104_Thailand_Political_Unrest.jpg
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BANGKOK // Thailand's Constitutional Court has ordered the prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, to resign after finding him guilty of violating the constitution over his appearance on a TV cooking show.

Mr Samak's entire cabinet was also ordered to step down. The decision is unlikely to immediately resolve the current political crisis, however, because the ruling People Power Party (PPP) has also vowed to reappoint Mr Samak as prime minister. Most analysts believe this may be the final nail in Mr Samak's coffin before he does eventually stand down. The court unanimously found that Mr Samak's appearance on Tasting and Grumbling constituted a conflict of interest because of his involvement with the private media company that produces the popular TV show. Before being elected to parliament in December and becoming prime minister, Mr Samak was a regular host of the TV chat show and cooking programme.

Mr Samak continued to host two shows after he took office in February. The court ruled that he had received payment, including petrol expenses and was a business partner. It will be 30 days before the court's decision comes into effect. During that time Mr Samak and his cabinet will remain in office as caretakers. "The party's MPs will certainly re-elect Mr Samak as prime minister when they meet later this week," Nattawut Saikaur, the government's deputy spokesman, said. "He's not done anything that affects the administration and warrants his being removed."

Many analysts believe Mr Samak cannot hold onto power much longer, and it is only a matter of days before he resigns or is replaced. "It's the end of the road for [Mr] Samak," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior political commentator with The Nation, the English-language daily newspaper. "This is certainly the last straw, and only a matter of time before he goes - it may even be before the end of the week."

But the court's decision has done little to immediately resolve the current political deadlock. Thousands of protesters have been occupying Mr Samak's office at Government House for two weeks demanding he resign immediately. Mr Samak has consistently refused to give in to what he calls "mob rule". Many of the demonstrators, who watched the court ruling on portable televisions, were euphoric at the decision. "See, this shows Samak and his cronies are not fit to rule this country," said Chaiyudh, a politics student from the prestigious Thammasat University.

The anti-government protesters, led by an umbrella group, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), are barricaded inside the prime minister's official compound in Bangkok where they have vowed to remain until Mr Samak resigns, parliament is dissolved and fresh elections are held. This is unlikely to happen in the near future. Although the main political opposition in parliament, the Democrats, favours this option, they are in a minority in the lower House of Representatives.

But even members of the PPP - from the electoral stronghold of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the north-east of the country - are advising Mr Samak to stand down, sources within the party said. What is most likely to happen now is that the coalition - which involves five other small parties - will try to find an alternative leader who might be able to bring some measure of national reconciliation to the situation. A former prime minister, Banharn Silapa-archa - leader of the Chart Thai party and coalition partner - is expected to emerge to head the coalition government.

"This is a great time for [Mr] Samak to resign; by accepting the court ruling, he saves face and can pretend he has not given in to the protesters," Mr Kavi said. "But he's like a cornered dog - most dangerous when his back is up against the wall - so nothing can be ruled out." The political crisis though cannot be resolved without the political parties' confronting of the increasingly acrimonious rifts in Thai society. "Thailand is now dangerously divided, though interestingly not along ideological fault lines, but rather regional ones," according to Shawn Crispin, south-east Asia editor of Asia Times online.

"The populous north and north-east favour Thaksin's new PPP, and Bangkok and the south remain loyal to the Democrats." The longer the political deadlock continues the more divided the country is going to become. There is also a danger of the continued conflict making more Thais disillusioned with politics and presenting the army with a golden opportunity to rescue the country from chaos. The army chiefs have repeatedly said there is no danger of a coup, but in recent days there have been increasing hints that many senior military officers are growing tired of the continuing political crisis.

"The army is unlikely to act soon, but they may be running of patience," said Titinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "The last coup [in 2006] was a setback for the military, and the army is likely to sit this one out, as long as there is little violence and the situation does not spiral out of control."