September 15, 2008 / 5:16 AM / 10 years ago

Thai ruling party picks Thaksin in-law for PM

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s ruling People Power Party (PPP) nominated a brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra as its pick for prime minister on Monday, antagonizing protesters who accuse the government of being a puppet of the ousted leader.

Thailand's acting Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat arrives for a news conference at the Royal Thai Armed Forces headquarters in Bangkok September 14, 2008. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Somchai Wongsawat, 61, has been acting prime minister since last week, when the Constitutional Court fired Samak Sundaravej — also seen as a Thaksin proxy — for hosting cooking shows on commercial television while in office.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which has occupied the prime minister’s official compound for the past three weeks in a bid to unseat the PPP, said it had no doubts that Thaksin would be pulling the strings from London, where he is in exile.

“We all know who Somchai is. Samak was just a nominee but Somchai is the real actor linked to Thaksin’s family,” PAD leader Somsak Kosaisuk told reporters. “We will not give him the benefit of the doubt or give him a honeymoon period.”

Parliament is due to vote on Somchai’s nomination on Wednesday, although as with an abortive vote for Samak on Friday following approval by the party, his formal accession is far from assured.

A group of 35 rebel PPP MPs came out of the party meeting to tell reporters they would not be voting for Somchai, saying his ties to Thaksin meant the political conflict that has gripped Thailand since well before a 2006 coup would drag on.

“We are prepared to choose a candidate who will not aggravate problems already faced by the country,” Banchong Wongtrairat, a spokesman for the rebel faction, said. He did not name his preferred candidate.

As the husband of Thaksin’s younger sister, Somchai was frequently accused of nepotism during his time as the top civil servant at the Justice Ministry. He denies the allegation, noting he got the job before Thaksin came to power.

NO MORE EMERGENCY

As acting premier, Somchai lifted a state of emergency at the weekend that Samak had imposed two weeks ago after a bloody street battle between the PAD and a pro-government protest group. One man was killed and dozens injured in the fighting.

Even though the army ignored the state of emergency, refusing to use force to evict the PAD from the prime minister’s compound, it had a dramatic effect on tourism, with many Asian countries issuing travel alerts and charter operators cancelling flights.

“We’ve seen quite a number of Asian tourists cancelling their flights, causing a loss of about 70-80 billion baht in the industry,” Apichart Sankary, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, told Reuters.

The stock market has fallen 27 percent since the PAD launched its anti-Samak street campaign in May, although over that period Thailand has performed better than many Asian emerging markets, suggesting investors have already priced in the political risk.

The revitalized protests by the PAD, whose campaign against Thaksin led to his removal in a September 2006 coup, have paralyzed government at a time of stuttering growth and soaring inflation.

The motley group of businessmen, activists and academics paint themselves as champions of cleaner government and defense of the monarchy. They also advocate a return to appointed government, saying popular democracy is swayed by money.

Reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Vithoon Amorn; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler

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