Thai ruling coalition begins search for new PM

BANGKOK Sat Sep 13, 2008 6:37am EDT

An anti-government protester rests next to old and current images of former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej during a demonstration outside the Government House in Bangkok September 13, 2008. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

An anti-government protester rests next to old and current images of former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej during a demonstration outside the Government House in Bangkok September 13, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Key officials in Thailand's ruling coalition huddled behind closed doors on Saturday to agree a replacement for Samak Sundaravej, who withdrew his bid for a new term as prime minister after an internal party revolt.

Samak's People Power Party (PPP), the biggest in the six-member coalition, vowed to nominate one of its own for the premiership, resuming a collision course with anti-government protesters who pledge to oppose any PPP candidate.

"Will the next prime minister come from the PPP? Absolutely. Absolutely. We will propose someone that everyone can accept and the coalition can accept," chief party spokesman Kudeb Saikrachang told Reuters.

He said the top three candidates ahead of Wednesday's parliamentary vote were acting Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Finance Minister and PPP Secretary-General Surapong Suebwonglee, and Justice Minister Sompong Amornwiwat.

The Constitutional Court sacked Samak last Tuesday, finding him guilty of conflict of interest for hosting television cooking shows while in office.

While the ruling removed Samak, it did not ban him from making a comeback which he had planned to do in a parliamentary vote on Friday.

But the vote was postponed to next week after a faction of 70 PPP lawmakers refused to back Samak, fearing his renomination would only escalate political tensions.

However, Samak's departure failed to appease the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which has occupied the prime minister's official compound in Bangkok for more than two weeks.

ANYONE BUT THE PPP

The PAD, a group of royalist businessmen, academics and activists, have vowed to continue their occupation of Government House if a PPP candidate was nominated for prime minister.

"We would accept anyone as prime minister, as long as he is not from the PPP," PAD spokesman Suriyasai Katasila said.

The PAD accused Samak of being a puppet of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives in exile in London.

Some PPP lawmakers have suggested that the government, in power for less than eight months, should dissolve parliament and call a snap election, but there is no sign that this is under serious consideration.

The stock market has fallen around 25 percent since the PAD launched its anti-Samak street campaign in May, triggering policy paralysis at a time of slowing economic growth and decade-high inflation.

Tensions peaked on September 2 when Samak imposed emergency rule in Bangkok after clashes between pro- and anti-government groups killed one man and injured 45.

Army chief Anupong Paojinda, who refused to use force to evict the PAD from Government House, again urged the government to lift the emergency decree.

"The decree is having an impact on the country's image," he told a radio station on Saturday, referring to the damage done to Thailand's tourism industry.

The situation has become much calmer since early September, but Thailand is no closer to resolving the fundamental conflict between the rural and urban poor who supported Thaksin, and Bangkok's middle and upper classes who despise him.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat)

(Writing by Darren Schuettler; editing by Roger Crabb)

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