Thai parliament selects new acerbic premier

( dpa ) - Thailand's new parliament on Monday selected Samak Sundaravej, a longtime political veteran notorious for his vitriolic rhetoric, as the country's next prime minister.

The House of Representatives handed the premiership to Samak, who faces a defamation conviction and charges of corruption, with 310 votes in his favour compared with 163 for Abhisit Vejjajiva, the opposition candidate.

Samak heads the People Power Party (PPP) which won more than 230 of the 480 contested seats in the December 23 general election and will lead a six-party coalition government that is expected to be set up by mid-February.

The PPP campaigned on a platform of paving the way for a safe return to Thailand for former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in self-exile since being toppled by a military coup on September 19, 2006, and the reintroduction of the populist policies that brought Thaksin to power.

Samak, a 40-year veteran to Thailand's politics who is best known for his acerbic tongue and rightwing principles, has openly described himself as a "nominee" for Thaksin, a former billionaire telecommunications tycoon who was prime minister between 2001 to 2006 before being ousted by the military.

Thaksin, who has been barred from entering politics by a ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal last year, is expected to return to Thailand in May to face abuse-of-power charges.

The PPP's victory at the December 23 polls is widely attributed to the lingering popularity of Thaksin among Thailand's rural poor, who benefited most from his populist policies.

Samak, whose last political post was governor of Bangkok, is widely seen as a surrogate leader for Thaksin.

"He is a man whose political career is lacking in achievements," said Chris Baker, who has co-authored several books on Thai politics with his wife, politcal scientist Pasuk Phongpaichit.

Samak, who has a long history of hostile relations with the press, has had several emotional outburst at recent press conferences.

At a now notorious recent interview with the local press, Samak - when persistently pestered by one reporter on a sensitive political issue - countered, "Did you have sinful sex last night?" leaving the roomful of journalists dumbfounded.

Samak's premiership could be cut short by an ongoing investigation into the purchase of unusually pricey firetrucks from an Austrian company, in a deal he approved during his governorship of Bangkok.

Bangkok's Criminal Court has also convicted him of defamation and sentenced him to two years in prison, but he has appealed the case.

There is a general perception that Thailand's next cabinet, which is likely to be formed by mid-February, will not last long, especially if Thaksin decides to seek office again and can clear himself of several corruption charges.

"My guess is the next government will last for about two years," said Baker.

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