Thailand's king officially endorsed a pugnacious ally of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as the country's new leader yesterday, paving the way for the return of a democratically elected government after a 2006 military coup.
Samak Sundaravej, head of the People's Power Party (PPP), was elected prime minister by lawmakers on Monday -- a choice that could put the new government on a collision course with the generals who toppled Thaksin for alleged corruption and abuse of power.
"The king has endorsed Samak as prime minister," PPP spokesman Kuthep Saikrajang said yesterday.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, requiring King Bhumibol Adulyadej to officially endorse the prime minister and cabinet before they take up their posts.
Following the king's approval, Samak's six-party coalition will discuss cabinet appointments, a process that could take up to two weeks, Kuthep said.
Samak easily beat Democrat party candidate Abhisit Vejjejava by 310 votes to 163 in parliament on Monday, but analysts fear the election of a Thaksin ally may further divide a country that has struggled to regain its footing since the coup.
Samak has made no secret that he is Thaksin's proxy, saying in an interview: "I have to bring [Thaksin] back to the limelight. We will use the same policies."
"It is likely to be a turbulent premiership ahead," said Panithan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Samak, a hot-tempered right-wing firebrand, has appealed a two-year jail sentence for defaming a deputy Bangkok governor and is the subject of an ongoing corruption investigation from when he was Bangkok governor from 2001 to 2004.
Analysts say his political fortunes will wax or wane in line with those of Thaksin, who has vowed to return from exile in May to face a slew of corruption charges.
Samak's party, a new group backed by Thaksin, won the largest number of seats in general elections last month.
Samak has assembled a six-party coalition with about two-thirds of the 480 seats in parliament's lower house.
But he faces the suspicions of Thaksin's powerful foes -- the military that toppled him and the country's elite, including some associated with the monarchy.
The military tried without success to lessen the former prime minister's extensive influence after toppling him on Sept. 19, 2006.