Thailand's new prime minister showed his determination to mend political rifts by quickly shaking hands with the opposition leader Wednesday. But the gesture didn't appease anti-government protesters, who called him unfit for the job because of ties to a disgraced former leader, reported Associated Press.
Many analysts said the negative reaction to Somchai Wongsawat's election by Parliament presaged further turmoil from activists who seized the prime minister's office compound three weeks ago. Others, however, said the soft-spoken Somchai might help open the door to dialogue.
Somchai, a 61-year-old former judge, is known as a conciliator. He's a sharp contrast to his combative predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, who was the original target of the protesters and was forced from office last week by a court ruling for taking pay to host TV shows.
The new leader appealed for unity during a news conference after his election.
"It is now time for Thailand to unite, to reconcile and to solve the conflict," he said. "It is not unusual to be angry, but we have to work together to make Thailand peaceful again."
Somchai carries heavy baggage, however. He is married to the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 coup amid corruption allegations. And he is deputy leader of the ruling People's Power Party, which was formed by Thaksin's allies.
The new prime minister "might have a gentlemanly nature, a soft-spoken style, and he might have a better reputation than everyone else (in the ruling party), but blood is thicker than water," said Somsak Kosaisuk, a leader of the protesting People's Alliance for Democracy. "Thaksin needs someone he can control."
Drawing loud cheers from protesters camped on the grounds of the Government House complex, Somsak said the sit-in would continue until the "remnants of Thaksin's regime are gone."
The alliance, which had called Samak a puppet of Thaksin, charges that Thaksin used his personal wealth to corrupt politics during his years as prime minister and then benefited from his high office.
The ruling party turned to Somchai after defections by allies in Parliament forced it to abandon an effort to re-elect Samak as prime minister Friday.
Somchai, who was deputy prime minister and education minister in Samak's seven-month government, easily won on a 298-163 vote in the lower house of Parliament, backed by the six parties in the governing coalition. His selection still needs formal approval by Thailand's king.
After a brief statement to lawmakers promising to do his best to carry out his duties, Somchai strode across the chamber to shake hands with Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the opposition.
The Democrats have shown some sympathy with the protest alliance, and one of its lawmakers has a prominent role in its leadership.
"It was a big step and an important gesture," said Thanet Charoenmuang, a political scientist from Chiang Mai University. "With the bitter divide that has been ruining the country, he has shown a willingness to work together with the opposition despite the differences."
Rank and file members of the People's Alliance for Democracy rejected his message.
One protester, 40-year-old Chansi Onsithan, said she was prepared to stay camped on the prime minister's muddy lawn. "We won't leave until he leaves. If he wants to stay for four years, fine, we'll stay here for four years."
Thousands of supporters of the protest alliance stormed the Government House on Aug. 26 with the goal of kicking Samak out of office. They now say that any member of the ruling party, which is full of Thaksin allies, is unacceptable as prime minister.
The group's leaders contend Western-style democracy gives too much power to the poor rural majority ї Thaksin's power base they call susceptible to vote buying. They want Parliament to be mostly appointed, a move critics charge is meant to keep power in the hands of the urban elite.
With no access to his office, Somchai said his government will be temporarily based at Bangkok's old international airport. Authorities have said they do not want to use force to evict the protesters holding the office compound.
Somchai has the kind of bureaucratic experience favored by Thailand's ruling class, having served more than 20 years as a judge. His first job in the executive branch, as deputy permanent secretary of the Justice Ministry, came in 1999 under a Democrat Party-led government.
Thanet, the professor, predicted the public would give the new leader a chance, but other analysts were pessimistic.
"The seat of government is being occupied illegally by protesters in the streets, the government has moved into the old airport, the prime minister has changed, it will change again," said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "This is going to be a protracted affair that is going to last many months."
Parinya Thevanaruemitkul, a law lecturer at Thammasat University, predicted the new government will not last long.
"Eventually, the government will dissolve Parliament (and call elections)," he said. "This is the only way out of the current political turmoil and to start a new page of Thai political history."