It's way too soon to call newly elected Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat an accidental hero. After all, only last week he was still seen as a potentially explosive force that might blow the national crisis to its next level of catastrophe. His connection with Thaksin Shinawatra is strong and deep, and pessimists are totally unhappy about the fact that the ousted leader's young sister is now Thailand's first lady.
Optimists insist we should not stereotype the Shinawatras, their relatives and associates. Somchai, if he is politically dangerous, must have shown the signs already. That he has sounded reconciliatory, that he hasn't said a word wrong about the political tension, should be welcomed. And if his apparent willingness to talk with the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) leads to some real efforts to break the deadlock, he deserves everyone's cooperation.
The PAD itself appears uncertain about how to handle him. On the one hand, it was easy to issue the strongest possible demand for his immediate ouster. On the other, the very man who lifted the state of emergency just a couple of days after having the power to do so might warrant a kinder scrutiny. In the end, the PAD's soft "No Somchai" yells have been drowned out by talk about his proposed negotiations. All of a sudden, the PAD has found the ball in its court.
Unlike most people associated with Thaksin, Somchai is not known for shadowy political manoeuvrings or business transactions. The biggest controversy in his bureaucratic and political career was a conflict with former justice minister Purachai Piumsombun when he (Somchai) served as justice permanent secretary. With his life now under a more intense focus, we may be in for previous unknown information, but as of now, there is something strangely calming about his ascendancy.
Somchai has a mountain to climb when it comes to setting up the new Cabinet. Highly unpopular Chalerm Yoobamrung is said to want to come back, and the notorious People Power Party faction led by Newin Chidchob is known to have made tough demands in exchange for its resentful support for his nomination. This is not to mention that qualified - and brave - candidates for ministerial positions are very hard to come by at the moment. It will be extremely difficult, but Somchai has only two options - form a credible Cabinet or risk following Samak out the early exit door.
But when it comes to the showdown with the PAD, Somchai has one big advantage - the absence of the belligerent Samak Sundaravej. Suddenly, the PAD has found itself to be the only one making noise, an unfamiliar situation that will make its already awkward occupation of Government House look even more awkward. The PAD needs new nasty enemies to reinvigorate the public's sympathies. Internally, it could get harder and harder to keep exhausted protesters motivated.
But things can turn against Somchai just as quickly. If he is really as smart as he has appeared so far, the new prime minister must know what led Samak to his early political demise. The former prime minister's defiant vow to amend the Constitution sent the PAD back to the streets, and what looked initially like a controllable crisis soon snowballed. Despite relentless rumours about Samak's readiness to betray his "master", the last government was doomed simply because it was perceived to be too close to Thaksin, if not being his outright "nominee".
Somchai's olive branch will soon be discarded if he follows Samak's disastrous path. The cases against Thaksin must never be interfered with and the last thing his government should do is revive the constitutional amendment plan. Such displays of neutrality will deprive the PAD of major ammunition and, if Thailand is lucky, we can achieve the first crucial step toward reconciliation - the one in which each warring party takes one step back.
There will be no honeymoon for Somchai. He is a leader in a crisis. In fact, he is a leader who is part of a crisis. It will be rear-guard actions all the way and everything can collapse so easily. There is no formula for survival under these circumstances and he may need to juggle among sincerity, shrewdness, decisiveness and flexibility. He doesn't have much time, but he seems to have successfully bought a little extra breathing space. How he uses it will determine whether he ends up being an unexpected hero or just another one who will bite the dust.