Published on January 20, 2008
The Supreme Court has already cleared the initial legal barriers facing Samak and his People Power Party (PPP), which won the most House seats in the December 23 general election.
The high court said last Friday it had no authority to rule on the allegations that the PPP and its current leader, Samak, were nominees of the disbanded Thai Rak Thai party and ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra. As a result, the PPP and five small parties are expected to finalise the composition of the new government this week.
For Samak, a former Bangkok governor, one of his initial challenges will be winning broad-based public support for his choice of the Cabinet members, especially those responsible for the country's economic affairs. This means that those appointed to the finance, commerce, agriculture, industry, transport, energy and related portfolios need to be highly qualified, with track records showing competency or Samak will not be able to bolster public confidence in the new government.
The honeymoon period, if there is to be one, will be brief given that the Thai economy, as well as consumers and businesses, have all been suffering from the political divide over the past two-to-three years.
This week, we will witness the final round of negotiations among coalition partners - the PPP, Chart Thai, Puea Pandin, Matchima Thipataya, Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana, and Pracharaj - on Cabinet portfolios, with the crucial defence post reportedly earmarked for General Prawit Wongsuwan, a former Army chief favoured by the current military leadership.
The military establishment needs reassurances that the new civilian government to be led by Samak, who is regarded as a long-time royalist, will not seek revenge. General Anupong Paochinda, the incumbent Army chief, who joined his superiors in staging the September 19, 2006 coup that overthrew the Thaksin government, would be particularly worried if the defence portfolio were taken up by a vengeful person.
All in all, Samak's first test as prime minister will be his choice of key Cabinet members, decisions that he unfortunately won't have the sole authority to make. However, Samak is expected to exude a high degree of self-confidence when he takes up office. Based on his strong personality and decades-long record in the political arena, it is safe to say that Samak isn't someone whose strings ex-premier Thaksin, who was barred from politics for a period of five years but who unofficially backed Samak, will be able to manipulate from behind.
Besides economic issues, Samak's political shrewdness will also be put to the test when he has to deal with a number of political time-bombs awaiting the new government, especially the PPP plan to seek amnesty for the 111 former executive members of Thai Rak Thai party, including Thaksin, who were barred from politics for a period of five years.
Samak will also have to manage the comeback of Thaksin from his exile in London in a fashion that will help heal the wounds caused by the political divide while keeping his hands off alleged corruption and abuse of power cases against the ex-premier and his family. A lawsuit is now pending in court alleging that the ex-premier abused his power by endorsing his wife's purchase of a multibillion-baht plot of prime real estate from the state while he was in office in the early 2000s. In addition, the Department of Special Investigation has accused the ex-premier and his wife of hiding assets in a family-controlled company. All of these cases and related legal issues are best left to the judicial system. However, Samak will be on a tightrope when he faces pressure from within his own party to seek amnesty for fellow executives of the disbanded Thai Rak Thai party.
Professor Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, president of the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), told me incoming prime minister Samak should be able to survive his first year in office if he can handle the Thaksin, Thai Rak Thai amnesty, and military issues competently.
Of these, the amnesty proposal could prove to be the most explosive, especially if Samak moves too early towards seeking Parliamentary approval for the amnesty bill. As a result, it is expected this issue will not be done in the first year, during which the new prime minister would have to display his patience for national reconciliatory efforts to restore public confidence in the government. If successful, consumer, local and international business confidence will quickly follow suit.