Thailand’s new parliament on Monday elected Samak Sundaravej, a conservative politician allied to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, as prime minister to lead the first elected government since a 2006 military putsch.
Mr Samak, 72, known for his acid tongue and fervent anti-communism, all but admitted he was a “proxy” for Mr Thaksin in the run-up to a December election.
But although Mr Samak recently protested to the contrary, many Thais believe that the leader of the People’s Power party, which won the December poll, will be a mere figurehead for an administration run behind the scenes by Mr Thaksin, who was banned from politics after the 2006 coup.
“The big political puppet show is about to begin,” Suthichai Yoon, editor-in-chief of The Nation newspaper, wrote last week: “Everybody knows who calls the shots.”
From his self-imposed exile, Mr Thaksin has repeatedly insisted he has no desire to return to active political life. But the former premier was a significant presence in the recent election campaign, during which he appeared in a widely circulated video calling on his supporters to vote for Mr Samak’s PPP. With his own image inextricably intertwined with the PPP, Mr Thaksin, who is still fighting to recover up to $1.9bn (€1.3bn, £956m) in assets frozen by the government, is unlikely to leave the PPP to its own devices, analysts said.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist, said Mr Thaksin would probably direct the government’s “strategy and direction” because “[Mr] Samak is not a policy guy. But in terms of keeping Thaksin’s opponents at bay and keeping the coalition together, [Mr] Samak will have some say.”
Mr Samak was tapped to lead the PPP for his strong royalist credentials, which helped the party deflect army claims that Mr Thaksin was disloyal to Thailand’s revered king. Mr Samak’s election must also still be signed off on by the king, although that is expected to be a formality.
Yet Mr Samak’s impending elevation to the premiership is controversial, given his personal history. In 1976, at the height of Thailand’s anti-communist fervour, his fierce oratory on military radio was blamed for inciting rightwing paramilitary groups to massacre student protesters at Thammasat University.
Mr Samak became interior minister following a subsequent coup, using his authority to ban more than 100 books, shut down newspapers and round up those he deemed “communist terrorists”. He was linked to more bloodshed in the 1992 “Blood May,” when, as deputy prime minister, he justified the army’s slaughter of dozens of Bangkok protesters whom he described as “troublemakers” and “communists” who needed to be controlled.
More recently, Mr Samak served a four-year term as Bangkok governor, during which his approval ratings plummeted against perceptions that he did little for the city. After his term ended in 2004, he resurfaced with a popular television show called Tasting and Grumbling, a mixture of cookery and rants on topics of his choice.
Mr Samak has had a testy relationship with the media, hammering down thorny questions with sharp, sometimes vulgar, retorts. When a journalist at a recent press conference inquired about rumoured political infighting, Mr Samak snapped back: “Did you have sinful sex last night?”
His tenure as premier could still be cut short. Investigators are looking into alleged corruption in Bangkok’s acquisition of Austrian fire trucks during his governorship. Mr Samak was also sentenced to two years in prison last year after being convicted of defamation. Although he remains free pending an appeal, his words could yet come back to haunt him.