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'Puppet PM' proves difficult to master

Samak out to show he's no figurehead, queries jobs given to PPP cronies

Published on February 14, 2008

Although sceptics may view the leadership of Samak Sundaravej as a prelude to the return of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister has sent out a clear message he's not warming up the seat for anyone but himself.

Samak is trying hard to establish his footing in order to exert himself as a genuine leader and not just a figurehead.

Without a firm base of support within the People Power Party, he has no choice but to rely on political artiface in order to pull strings right back at his puppet masters.

Thaksin's allies, including Som-chai Wongsawat, Newin Chidchob and Surapong Suebwonglee, need to take another look at the man they support before they end up as props of their own puppet.

In the week leading up to the first Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the main coalition party drew up a list of candidates, seen as controversial figures, for jobs as ministerial secretaries and advisers. As party leader, Samak appeared docile and subjugated to Thaksin's inner circle.

By Tuesday, Samak had become prime minister and a changed man.

In a few short words, he managed to embarrass the Thaksin allies by questioning their judgement in shortlisting candidates, calling it a government disgrace.

The ball is now in the court of the puppet masters, including Newin, to decide whether they dare risk a public backlash by insisting on rewarding cronies, such as Wan Yoobamrung, the son of Interior Minister Chalerm. Tuesday was, in fact, the second time the prime minister had snubbed his puppet masters.

On Monday, Samak reported for duty as defence minister. He pointedly refused to reveal the substance of his talks with the top brass, but mentioned he'd just had a lengthy and fruitful discussion with coup leader General Saprang Kalayana-mitr.

Of all the top generals involved in the September 19 coup, Saprang remains a staunch opponent of Thaksin and Samak has, interestingly, befriended him.

The clincher in outwitting Thaksin and his allies is Samak's job assigning for his six deputies and two PM's Office ministers.

Samak is the only prime minister in recent memory, going back at least three decades, to hold complete control over the bureaucracy, the state legal machinery, the police, national security apparatus, the intelligence service and military personnel.

He refuses to delegate the supervision of super agencies such as the National Security Council, the Council of State, the Civil Service Commission, the armed forces, the National Intelligence Agency and the Internal Security Operations Command.

In short, he has under his command every mechanism to ensure his safe tenure in power. Even former prime minister General Prem Tinsulanonda was not as powerful in his heyday as Samak.

Samak has distanced himself from economic affairs by putting Thaksin's allies at the forefront of revitalising the economy. He has set a deadline for a first evaluation of their performance in three months and a final review in six months.

If the economy continues to be lacklustre, the prime minister will have the economic ministers, many  of whom happen to be his puppet masters, ready for human sacrifice. Should the economy turn robust, there is nothing to prevent the government leader from claiming the laurels.

Two of Thaksin's loyal allies, Jakrapob Penkair and Chusak Sirinil, have been designated as lightning rods for the government. Samak has assigned Jakrapob to rein in the local press, doing the dirty work for him. Chusak is expected to battle the opposition on legislative issues but Samak has denied him access to the Council of State.

In the party, the puppet depends on the puppeteers. At Government House, the puppeteers yield control to the puppet. The show has just begun and already the audience is glued to its seats.

Avudh Panananda

The Nation

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