Thai PM Ousted over Cookery Shows

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Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej at a food festival in Bangkok.

Thailand's Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has a notoriously big appetite. In an interview with TIME earlier this year, he spent far more time expounding on his favorite fried-rice recipe than detailing just how he would tackle rising prices of the grain. But on September 9, Samak's food fetish looked like it would cost him his premiership when the nation's constitutional court found him guilty of conflict of interest for having hosted several episodes of a commercial T.V. cooking show earlier this year. According to the Thai constitution, the P.M. may not accept compensation from a private company while in office. The Thai company, Face Media, that made the shows, says it paid Samak around $2,300 for several appearances, an amount that the 73-year-old Premier maintains was used to buy ingredients and cover transportation costs. But the court didn't buy that argument, ruling that Samak and his entire cabinet must resign. "The defendant has violated Article 267 of the constitution, and his position as prime minister has ended," the head of the nine-judge panel, Chat Chonlaworn, declared, adding that the cabinet should remain as a caretaker for 30 days until a new p.m. takes office.

Samak's unlikely ouster comes as thousands of protesters with the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have been besieging his office compound. Since Aug. 26, they've turned the manicured grounds into a rallying ground for opposition orators, and they greeted the court decision with loud cheers and claps. Members of the PAD staged daily protests in Bangkok since late May, calling for Samak's resignation. But they upped the ante when they stormed Government House late last month and forced Samak to abandon his normal offices. PAD leaders claim Samak, whose People Power Party (PPP) won elections last December, is little more than a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself booted out of office by a bloodless military coup in 2006. (Thaksin has been charged with corruption and fled to Britain earlier this summer, claiming he will not receive a fair trial back home.) Last week, Samak declared a state of emergency, giving the army the right to forcibly remove the protesters from his office compound. But the military, so far, has refused to evict the demonstrators.

Although the cooking-show ruling is sure to please the PAD, Samak may not be out of a job for long. Thailand's ruling coalition holds the right to reinstate him as Prime Minister, something party officials have already vowed to do.

Indeed, the judges' decision notwithstanding, there's little evidence that Thailand's political crisis is set to end anytime soon. And that's bad for Thai business. Since the PAD rallies began, the country's benchmark stock index has plummeted nearly 25%. After several nations issued travel warnings for Thailand last week, following a fatal street battle in Bangkok between rival groups of political demonstrators, many tourists have canceled trips, depriving the country of badly needed income.

But just hours before the verdict against him was handed down, Samak wasn't about to offer an easy way out. On Tuesday morning, the Premier defiantly toured a vegetable and meat market in the country's northeast, a culinary gimmick that echoed his T.V. cooking-show appearances. Still, even if he is voted back to office by members of the ruling coalition, Samak still faces other legal hurdles. His party faces possible dissolution by the courts because of an electoral-fraud conviction of its former deputy. And a defamation suit against Samak, which could carry a jail sentence, is also working its way through the halls of justice, along with other corruption inquiries. Samak isn't out of the fire yet — even if has laid down his wok.