Celebrity chef is elected as Prime Minister of Thailand
Tuesday 29 January 2008
Thailand's parliament has chosen as its new prime minister a pugnacious celebrity chef and self-confessed "front man" for his ousted predecessor Thaksin Shinawatra.
Samak Sundaravej, 72, is a veteran political operative who was openly standing as a proxy for Mr Thaksin, who remains in self-imposed exile after being removed in a bloodless coup 16 months ago.
But Mr Samak's premiership is unlikely to be a conventional one, and Thailand got a taster of it when – within minutes of his being elected – the TV star was seen at a high-class market buying groceries.
And yesterday he vowed that his television programme, called Tasting, Grumbling, would carry on while he was in office. "The constitution does not prohibit a prime minister from doing TV shows," said Mr Samak, wondering round the market stalls. "We still have three months of our new cooking show on tape."
He said Monday is his usual "shopping day" but "I surely have to spend more today because there'll be lots of guests at home".
The colourful presenter lost his temper with a female reporter who was questioning him on his ambitions for office at a recent press conference, asking her if she had "sinful sex" the previous night. He leads a six-party coalition headed up by the People Power Party, which easily defeated the Democrats by 310 votes to 163.
He has already pledged to work to help Mr Thaksin – who publicly supported his successor – clear his name. Mr Thaksin, a billionaire telecoms tycoon and owner of Manchester City football club, still faces the possibility of arrest over a 2003 land deal that has seen his wife appear in court before being bailed.
Commentators were last night predicting a turbulent period on Thai politics as the prospect of Mr Thaksin's rehabilitation looked set to divide public opinion. Mr Samak is himself facing charges of corruption over the purchase of fire vehicles when he was governor of Bangkok, and battling a two-year sentence for defamation.
"It is likely to be a turbulent premiership ahead," said Panithan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "For many people, he doesn't have legitimacy to rule, given pending legal cases. He is also seen as a nominee of Thaksin who is still very much prominent in Thai politics. Moreover, he has enemies on all sides because of his abrasive and divisive personality."
Mr Samak, who made his name as a radio presenter during the 1970s and continues to launch political tirades on his cooking programme, has denied that he is a "puppet" to the former leader. "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."
Polls suggest that fewer than half of Thais approve of his coming to office.
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