09/17/2008, 00.00
THAILAND
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Somchai Wongsawat new Thai prime minister

by Weena Kowitwanij
Parliament approves the brother-in-law of exiled former PM Thaksin by a margin of 298 votes out of 480. He is expected to lead the country towards reconciliation but his family ties to the former Thai leader undermine his credibility.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Somchai Wongsawat is the new prime minister of Thailand. The 61-year-old former judge was picked by the People's Power Party (PPP) as its choice for the prime minister after the outgoing Samak Sundaravej threw in the towel last week. Mr Somchai was already acting prime minister after his predecessor’s resignation. The lower house of parliament gave him a 298-163 majority with five abstentions. Now all that is needed is the royal assent from King Bhumibol Adulyadej who in accordance with the constitution has 30 days to ratify the decision by parliament.

The election of the new head of government is not likely to appease the country, which is still reeling from the protests of opposition parties led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

Although Somchai might have experience, “a gentlemanly nature, a soft-spoken style” to many opponents he remains the brother-in-law of the hated Thaksin Shinawatra.

The new leader comes with the political baggage of being related to Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is now in voluntary exile in London after fleeing his country to escape corruption charges, and it will be difficult for him to find ways towards reconciliation.

Somchai Wongsawat was born in Nakhonsrithammaraj, a predominantly Muslim province in southern Thailand, where today some 200 people met in city hall to celebrate his election.

After 20 years working as a judge in various parts of the country, he became permanent secretary in the Justice Ministry in November 1999 under a Democrat Party administration.

Suda Hayee, a Muslim student in Nakhonsrithammaraj, called on her illustrious compatriot to work for national reconciliation. “I hope he can bring peace to the nation as quickly as possible,” she said

Another resident, also favourably impressed by Mr Somchai’s rise, said: “He is a very good guy who never forgot his roots. He is also subtle and careful. We trust that his ability to compromise will help him solve the current crisis.”

Yet despite his supporters’ confidence and an expectant population, the new prime minister will not have an easy task ahead.

In announcing more protests PAD leader stressed Somchai’s family ties to former Premier Thaksin and the backing he got from the exiled leader in London.

“I hope he will strip Thaksin of his passport so that he can be brought to justice and answer charges against him,” said PAD leaser Chamlong Srimuang.

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