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Obituary: Samak Sundaravej

Samak Sundaravej (file image)
Mr Samak was known for his sharp tongue and pugnacious manner

Samak Sundaravej, who was prime minister of Thailand for nine months in 2008, has died of cancer at the age of 74.

He was known as a man of contradictions.

There was the abrasive royalist who made both friends and enemies serving in various cabinets and as Bangkok governor.

There was also the charismatic charmer who used to present a TV cookery show - a show which, a Thai court ruled, he presented in violation of his position as prime minister.

Mr Samak led a coalition government for nine months after winning elections in December 2007. He struggled to cope with street protests, poor economic growth and soaring inflation.

But his greatest challenge was his close connection to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a coup in September 2006.

Mr Samak formed the People Power Party (PPP) from the ruins of Mr Thaksin's dissolved Thai Rak Thai party, and made no secret of his support for Thailand's former leader.

Veteran lawmaker

Born in June 1935 in the capital, Bangkok, Samak Sundaravej came from an aristocratic family.

Anti-government protesters shouting slogans outside Government House, August 2008
There are mounting protests against Mr Samak and his government

He graduated with a law degree from the prestigious Thammasat University, and entered politics in his 30s, first as a member of the Democrat Party.

He then served for a short time as interior minister in a military government, before establishing his own party, Prachakorn Thai, which he led until 2000, at one time serving as one of Mr Thaksin's deputy prime ministers.

He then spent four years as Bangkok governor, but his popularity ebbed somewhat amid allegations of corruption linked to city contracts.

When his term was up, Mr Samak started a series of talk shows and later his televised cookery show.

'Unfair'

But after the military seized power from Mr Thaksin in 2006 - and later banned him, his party and his political allies from office - Mr Samak received a call from the ousted prime minister.

"The military wanted to get rid of his party. They wanted not a single thing left over," Mr Samak said. "I think that is unfair. So when he asked me [to run the party], I said 'okay'."

Forming the PPP, Mr Samak assumed Mr Thaksin's populist mantle.

He targeted voters in poor rural communities, promising more education and a better economy - and they gave him the support that they had given Mr Thaksin.

Mr Samak on the campaign trail in Bangkok in December 2007
On the campaign trail, Mr Samak allied himself with Mr Thaksin

When the first post-coup elections were held in late 2007, the PPP won by far the largest share of the vote, and emerged as the leading party of a six-party governing coalition.

Many people welcomed this new government and the end of military rule.

But Mr Samak faced problems from the moment he took office.

He was never going to be welcomed by detractors of Mr Thaksin, but when he announced his cabinet - made up largely of members of Mr Thaksin's old party Thai Rak Thai, and their friends and relatives - the anti-Thaksin lobby hated him all the more.

Then he tried to alter two clauses in the military-backed constitution. Critics were quick to point out that both these clauses were tied to the interests of his party, and looked suspiciously self-serving.

Mr Samak had to cope with rising food and fuel prices, a sluggish economy and high inflation, not to mention a series of verbal gaffes.

And he was later embroiled in a spat over the ownership of land surrounding a Unesco World Heritage-listed temple on the border between Thailand and Cambodia.

In June 2008, his detractors came together on the streets to demand Mr Samak's resignation - and in fact that of his entire government.

They were led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the same group that organised the street protests calling for Mr Thaksin's resignation in the months before the coup.

These protests gradually gathered strength, and on 26 August thousands of demonstrators converged on Government House, vowing to stay there until Mr Samak stepped down.

The prime minister stood firm, insisting he had a right to govern, having been democratically elected less than a year ago.

After two weeks he was forced to resign - not by the protesters but by a court decision that he had violated the constitution by hosting a cookery show, which judges deemed was a conflict of interest.

Mr Samak tried to muster the support needed to re-nominate him for the role. But when it became clear that support for him both within his party, and within the ruling coalition, was waning, he finally withdrew and accepted his fate.



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