Thailand's PM Proxy: Samak

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Photograph for TIME by Helen Kudrich

Samak Sundaravej

If you're a Thai voter who longs for the return of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, then Samak Sundaravej is your man. An acid-tongued, fire-breathing ultra-conservative who brands his opponents communists and "street gangsters," the 72-year-old former Bangkok governor is running in the Dec. 23 national election on a platform the rural masses find irresistible: as he unabashedly declares, "I'm Thaksin's nominee." Samak, the nominal leader of the People Power Party (PPP), has promised that if elected he'll bring back Thaksin and his populist policies, like cheap credit and debt moratoriums. Samak has vowed to grant amnesty to 111 politicians convicted last June by a Constitutional Tribunal of electoral fraud, including the former prime minister. The judges banned them from political activity for five years and dissolved their Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party. Samak's pledge has the PPP, essentially a reconstituted TRT, leading in every opinion poll.

In September 2006, Thailand's military deposed Thaksin in a bloodless coup. After months of massive anti-Thaksin street demonstrations by the urban middle class, who chafed under his increasingly authoritarian rule, the generals stepped in. Bangkok residents, euphoric at Thaksin's demise, showered the soldiers with praise and flowers. The military claimed that Thaksin was corrupt, dividing the country, fomenting violence, and disloyal to revered constitutional monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej (all allegations that Thaksin has denied). But while the generals' takeover was executed with impressive precision, the same can't be said of their administration of the country. Their appointed government of mostly elderly bureaucrats has been criticized as slow-moving and inept. A Muslim insurgency in the south rages on, the economy is mired in doldrums — Thailand's 4.3% growth for 2007 is the lowest in the region — and the government's failure to spend heavily in the provinces has left the rural poor longing for Thaksin and his populism. That's why Samak is playing the Thaksin card. The two men are strange bedfellows — they were once political rivals — but now each needs the other.

While Samak now rails against the military and its ouster of Thaksin, he hasn't always been aligned against them. Thai society was deeply polarized between left and right when Indochina fell under communist rule in 1975. On the morning of Oct. 6, 1976, police and right-wing paramilitary mobs invaded Thammasat University, raping, lynching and burning alive scores of students who were demonstrating for greater civil liberties. A few hours later, the military staged a coup. Samak was then appointed interior minister in one of Thailand's most repressive governments. Leftists and students were hunted down and jailed. "I blame him," says Prof. Thientham Thiensirichai, a former student who fled to the jungles and is now a member of the Matchima political party, a smaller TRT splinter-party. "He is my enemy."

In May 1992, Bangkok's middle class rose up to demand that the then coup leader, Gen. Suchinda Krapayoon, resign. Suchinda had the army open fire, killing scores in what has come to be known as "Black May." Samak, who was deputy prime minister, called the demonstrators troublemakers and communists, and said it was acceptable for the government to shoot them. After the King intervened and democracy was restored, Samak still won a seat to parliament in Bangkok's military-dominated Dusit district. During the late 1990s, he and Thaksin served as cabinet ministers in the scandal-plagued government of Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa. Samak and Thaksin were publicly admonished by the King for arguing with each other rather than solving the capital's notorious traffic problems. Nonetheless, in 2000, Samak was elected Bangkok governor, winning in a landslide. Though his term lacked notable accomplishments — and he's under investigation for alleged corruption in the procurement of fire trucks — Bangkok voters sent him to the Senate in April 2005.

How can Samak, voted the most hated civilian in a newspaper poll after Black May, retain such solid support? Chris Baker, co-author of Thaksin: The Business of Politics, says Samak is a hit among lower-middle-class citizens — they admire his strong persona and see him as someone who gets things done. Small shopkeepers, taxi drivers and day laborers love tuning in to Samak's television and radio political talk shows — and his immensely popular cooking programs — to hear him sound off and bash others. "He's entertainment," Baker says.

Samak's clout with Bangkok voters could deny the Democrat Party, the PPP's chief challenger, victory. As it stands, the PPP is expected to dominate the north and northeast, while the Democrats will take the south. Most polls show Samak's party winning the most seats in parliament, but not a majority, forcing it to compete with the Democrats to court small and mid-sized parties to form a new coalition government. Several analysts are predicting the generals will quietly pressure smaller parties to make a deal with the Democrats. "I don't think the military will be comfortable with a PPP government," says Thaksin's former foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai, now a member of the Peua Paendin party.

In a skillful bit of mud-slinging, Samak, once himself known as a militarist, has used this scenario to accuse the Democrat Party, which has consistently criticized the coup, of being the army's puppets. Asked if he believes the generals will truly interfere if the PPP wins, Samak told TIME, "I would like to see how they will try. The world will be watching."

With a half century in politics, Samak can't be taken lightly. Not long ago, his decades-old dream of becoming Thailand's prime minister seemed dead. Now, it may finally come true. But the star is still Thaksin. "I must grab his hand," says Samak, "and bring him back into the limelight." So long as Samak gets to share it.