Thailand's prime minister yesterday distanced himself from ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, hoping to ease pressure on his four-month-old government as parliament gears up for a no-confidence vote.
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej took office after winning elections in December, which ended more than a year of rule by the royalist generals who toppled Thaksin in 2006.
Samak openly campaigned as a proxy for Thaksin but their ties have now sparked protests in the streets and in parliament, which is set to hold a vote of no confidence on Thursday.
Critics accuse him of attempting to shelter Thaksin from a raft of corruption investigations that have already resulted in the freezing of US$2 billion of his assets.
Called before the Senate for a debate on his performance, Samak refuted charges that he was Thaksin’s puppet.
“We are different,” he said. “The members of our political parties may come from the same groups, but it’s normal in Thai politics for people to change parties.”
Senator Sumon Sutaviriyawat opened the debate by accusing the prime minister of trying to amend the nation’s military-backed Constitution to curb the investigation into Thaksin, while ignoring Thailand’s economic problems.
“The government has failed to solve our economic problems and focused on amending the Constitution, which clearly shows that they want to help the former prime minister,” Sumon said.
“The country is in a crisis caused by this government,” she said in the nationally televised proceedings. “The country is not peaceful, and economic problems have not been solved.”
The Senate, in which nearly half the seats were appointed under the army-backed Constitution, will not vote at the end of the debate. However, the more powerful lower house will open a no-confidence debate today that will lead to a vote two days later.
Samak’s coalition controls about two-thirds of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives, and analysts say he is expected to easily survive the vote. But he still faces pressure from street protesters led by the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which brought 25,000 people to the gates of Samak’s offices on Friday.
The PAD had led protests against Thaksin in the months before the coup, and their latest rallies have raised fears of a new putsch.
Their rallies pull together a mainly middle class following, but they exert a strong influence because the leadership is seen as a reflection of Thailand’s traditional power centers in the palace and the military.
Thaksin, a self-made billionaire, had antagonized Bangkok’s elite with populist policies that endeared him to Thailand’s populous heartland by providing universal healthcare, affordable loans and other programs.
Analysts say that even if Samak were somehow forced out of office, tensions would remain between the traditional elite and Thaksin’s populist allies, who would likely win any new election.
“If Samak resigns, then what? You have another election, the same people will win,” said Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a politics professor at Chulalongkorn University.
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