September 12, 2008 / 12:21 PM / 11 years ago

Thailand's Samak pulls out of PM vote

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Samak Sundaravej will not be a candidate when the Thai parliament votes next week for a new premier, an aide said on Friday, but street campaigners vowed to keep pressure on the government he led for seven months.

Government supporters, with former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej pictured on a banner in front, rally outside Parliament in Bangkok, September 12, 2008. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

“He said he did his best to protect democracy. From now on it’s up to the party to decide what to do next,” Thirapol Noprampa, Samak’s aide, told reporters.

His withdrawal was cheered by supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who occupied the prime minister’s offices more than two weeks ago in a bid to unseat him.

In the event, Thailand’s Constitutional Court sacked him from the premiership on 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 and this is what he indicated he would seek to do in a parliamentary vote on Friday.

Then came news that parliament had postponed the vote after several factions of Samak’s People Power Party (PPP) withdrew their backing, fearing his renomination would only escalate political tensions.

There was no immediate word from the PPP on whom they would now back for prime minister when the chamber finally votes on Wednesday.

The protesters had vowed to continue their occupation if Samak’s party, the biggest in the six-party ruling coalition, nominated one of its own for prime minister.

“We would accept anyone as prime minister, as long as he is not from the PPP,” said Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the PAD which accuses Samak of being a puppet of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister ousted in a 2006 coup and now living in exile.

The combative 73-year-old Samak, who Thirapol said would remain PPP leader for now, had vowed never to quit in the face of the PAD protesters, whom he derided as a mob.

One PPP member even suggested acting Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat should dissolve parliament and call a snap election.

“When there seems to be no way out and parliament can’t find one, a possible solution is to return power to the people to decide at the ballots,” Jatuporn Prompan told reporters.

STALEMATE

Earlier, the main stock market index ended 1.2 percent higher after the parliamentary vote delay, with investors relieved that a potential flashpoint had been avoided, for now at least.

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.

Aside from acting PM Somchai, other potential candidates for prime minister include Finance Minister and PPP Secretary-General Surapong Suebwonglee, and Justice Minister Sompong Amornwiwat.

When Samak became prime minister in January, most Thais were keen to see civilian rule succeed after an inept post-coup interim government. But he never enjoyed high popularity ratings as his government struggled to revive the economy.

When Samak moved to rewrite a military-sponsored constitution, arguing that it was to blame for the country’s political problems, the PAD accused him of trying to help Thaksin avoid prosecution on graft charges.

Thaksin fled into exile in London with his wife last month.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Tensions peaked on September 2 when Samak imposed emergency rule in Bangkok after violent clashes between pro- and anti-government groups. But the army refused to use force to clear the PAD from Government House.

The situation has become much calmer, 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 Nopporn Wong-Anan)

Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Roger Crabb

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