Somchai elected new Thai PM

The brother-in-law of deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatra is elected as the new prime minister of Thailand.

BANGKOK // Thailand's parliament has elected a new prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, the brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from office in 2006 and is currently in exile in England. Mr Somchai replaces Samak Sundaravej, who was forced from office last week when a court found him guilty of violating the constitution by accepting payment for hosting TV cooking shows. Although the new prime minister's election ends days of uncertainty, it will not resolve the political crisis that has gripped the country in the past weeks. Parliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of Mr Somchai, after the ruling People Power Party appeared to be on the brink of splitting into several factions over his nomination. The party's whips managed to quell the revolt, and Thailand's new prime minister now starts what most analysts believe will be only a brief time in office. "It was always clear that the party would close ranks behind him, especially with Mr Thaksin actively campaigning on his behalf on the phone from London," said Titinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "But his election is unlikely to ease the political tension, as the protesters on the streets are at war with the whole political system and will not be satisfied with anything less than a new constitution." Thailand's new leader immediately signalled his intention to try to resolve the country's political crisis and promised to take a conciliatory approach towards the opposition - in parliament and on the streets. "It is time for Thailand to reconcile. We do not hate each other, so we should not let hatred prevent us from tackling the immediate problems the country is facing," he told reporters shortly after he had been formally elected as the prime minister. Mr Somchai's calm demeanour stands in stark contrast to his coarse and irascible predecessor, Mr Samak. Mr Somchai is urbane, polite and well-spoken. This is his first term as a member of parliament. Before entering politics, he had a long and distinguished career as a civil servant - first as a judge, and later as the top government official in the justice and labour ministries. The new prime minister's main objective will be to bring unity to the country, according to senior members of the ruling party. "Plugging rifts in society is the most important step that needs to be taken at present," said Yongyuth Tiyarpairat, the PPP's former deputy leader. "It's time we found ways to reconcile and restore peace." But this will be no easy matter. Mr Somchai's election will do nothing to placate the protesters in the streets of the capital. The fact that he is related by marriage to Mr Thaksin - the real villain in Thai politics as far as the anti-government protesters are concerned - will be a heavy cross to bear. "Even if he is not actually beholden to his brother-in-law, he will be tainted and constrained by this fact," Prof Titinan said. "He will be vulnerable to personal abuse and accusations that will effectively limit his ability to act." The immediate problem remains the thousands of anti-government protesters - led by an umbrella group called the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - who have been occupying the prime minister's official compound for the past three weeks demanding an end to the PPP government, no matter who it elects as prime minister. "We really don't care. This is just a group of bandits choosing a new leader," Somsak Kosaisuk, a PAD leader, told reporters after Mr Somchai was elected. The PAD believes Mr Thaksin is continuing to pull the strings from abroad, and it is threatening to remain in its protest camp until he and his influence are completely expunged from Thai politics. "It's a question of rule of law - the protesters are breaking the laws and as long as they remain in Government House, there is no rule of law in this country," said Chaturon Chaisang, a former deputy prime minister in the Thaksin government. Most government parliamentarians also say this situation is intolerable and must be stopped before the country can return to normal. But few are advocating direct action against the protesters by the security forces. "There's no smooth and legal solution," Mr Chaturon conceded. "We have to avoid violence at all cost as this is exactly what the protesters want - to give the military a pretext to intervene again." Some senior PPP members are openly suggesting starting negotiations with the "conflicting parties" to try to resolve the political deadlock. Mr Somchai has the temperament and approach needed, according to many academics, businessmen and politicians. "Even though Mr Somchai is Mr Thaksin's brother-in-law, I don't think it should be a problem. He has his own way and is confident enough to the rule the country," said Thanes Charoenmaung, who teaches political science at Chiang Mai University. "But he must try to hold a constructive dialogue with the PAD - perhaps through intermediaries - if the current political stand-off is to be solved." Before he considers what to do about the protesters, the new prime minister has to select a new cabinet. For many in Thailand, the real test of the government in the next few weeks will be what it does to boost the economy. The value of shares on the Thai stock market has fallen by more than 30 per cent in the three months since the protests began. The value of the local currency, the baht, is at its lowest in nearly 12 months, while one of the country's main industries, tourism, has been badly damaged. Soaring food and fuel prices are also making many Thais increasing resentful. "What the new prime minister must now do is help solve the problem of people's rising cost of living and restore business and investors' confidence," said Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, dean of the National Institute of Development Administration. The problem is that this can only be accomplished with an end to the political crisis - and there are no signs that will happen anytime soon. ljagan@thenational.ae