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Somchai Needs To Prove His Worth - Fast

Braving the rain outside the Government House in Bangkok on 15 Sept, Somsak Kosaisuk, one of the leaders of the opposition People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), gave his opinion of Thailand's new prime minister to cheering protesters. Somchai Wongsawat, he said, "might have a better reputation than everyone else (in the ruling party), but blood is thicker than water".

The viewpoint neatly summed up the reaction of many government critics.

But is such an assessment fair, and - more importantly - does it really go to the heart of the challenges faced by the new prime minister?

Kosaisuk's reference to the fact that Somchai is the brother-in-law of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra struck a chord with protesters. They have long accused the ruling People Power Party (PPP) of being nothing more than a proxy for the administration ousted by a military coup in September 2006.

But such a view has become increasingly difficult to sustain in recent months. With Thaksin in voluntary exile and his assets inside the country frozen, many in the PPP have long since come to regard the former premier as more of a liability than an asset. The point was underlined last Monday, when dozens of PPP legislators walked out of party negotiations, arguing that nominating Somchai would inflame street protesters.

"One of Somchai's first acts as prime minister has been to call for national reconciliation."

No doubt his political opponents will continue to use his family connections against him in the coming weeks. His real weaknesses as prime minister, however, probably lie elsewhere.

Chief among his weaknesses is inexperience. Somchai entered politics only last year, serving as education minister and one of the PPP's two deputy leaders. He became acting prime minister last week after his predecessor Samak Sundaravej was forced to step down.

Bespectacled and soft-spoken, Somchai has seldom had to endure the glare of television cameras. A recent Reuters report suggested that he appeared unsure of himself as he chaired a PPP news conference last week. He does not come across as a decisive leader who can make critical decisions in times of crisis.

With more than two decades of experience as a senior bureaucrat behind him, Somchai can reasonably claim to know how Thailand's powerful bureaucracy works. He was permanent secretary of the Justice Ministry from 1999 to 2006, and then briefly held the same position at the Labour Ministry. He has also sat on the boards of several state-controlled companies, including Airports of Thailand, the Petroleum Authority of Thailand and Krung Thai Bank.

But whether this makes him a good administrator is another matter entirely. Critics argue that he did little to improve the country's legal system during his long stint at the Justice Ministry. And this was despite the fact that - with his brother-in-law as prime minister during some of those years - he presumably had the political connections to push through new initiatives.

Somchai was more active as education minister, however, suggesting that a taste of real power might produce a more activist prime minister. His initiatives in the Education Ministry include scholarship schemes designed to appeal to rural voters, and increasing the education budget to provide free education across the country starting this academic year.

During a television talk show in May, Somchai even displayed some of the decisiveness many hope he will exercise as prime minister. Noting that some parents were still being forced to pay "tea money" - or extra money beyond tuition fees - he angrily read out a letter from a concerned parent. "The government wants your children to receive free education," he told his audience. "But school owners might adopt some tricks, so it's your duty to denounce them."

One of Somchai's first acts as prime minister has been to call for national reconciliation. But coming not long after his Sept 13 decision as acting prime minister to lift the emergency decree, the appeal is likely to be seen by PAD protesters as further evidence of weakness.

Somchai, until now regarded as little more than a mild-mannered career bureaucrat, needs to move up the learning curve quickly. (By BRUCE GALE/ The Straits Times/ ANN)

MySinchew 2008.09.23

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