Samak Can Cook (But He Probably Can't Lead)

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 9/09/2008 06:19:00 PM
This post represents an opportunity for me to kvetch over two usually unrelated things: the tenuousness of electoral competition in Southeast Asia and the cult of the celebrity chef. The Philippines set a precedent in 2001 for ousting popularly elected leaders when then-President Joseph Estrada, an actor by trade, was removed over allegations of (yawn) corruption. As the streets of Manila overflowed with indignant opponents, Estrada was compelled to flee. It seems that Thailand is attempting to up the ante by ousting not just one but two popularly chosen leaders. First was Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 after being re-elected in 2005. Now, it appears that Thaksinite ally Samak Sundarajev is about to suffer the same fate as his predecessor. Several members of Thaksin's outlawed Thai Rak Thai party are now part of the Samak-led People's Power Party, which came into power during the 2007 elections.

However, weeks of endless demonstrations have now been capped by a Thai court declaring that Samak and his cabinet need to step down over--get this--hosting a TV cooking show. After being chosen as Thai Prime Minister, Samak continued to host this show even if Thai elected officials are not allowed to pursue other sources of income. The earliest memory I have of an Oriental celebrity chef on TV is Martin Yan of "Yan Can Cook" fame. While it may be true that Samak too can cook, it seems his culinary flair has led to his early demise. Yes, cooking shows are rather hokey, and the Thais may have inferred as much from Samak's avocation. Although Samak says that he will attempt to regain his post, it is indeed odd to be ousted for being a Martin Yan wannabe. The topsy-turvy quotient in Southeast Asia is indeed on the rise with someone being removed from office over Tom Kha Salmon.

It also speaks volumes about the fledgling concept of electoral competition in Southeast Asia when people lining the streets can readily overturn election results. Why bother to hold polls in the first place if you're just going to turf these folks soon thereafter? The procedural justice is questionable in these political free-for-alls. From the BBC:

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has been ordered to resign after being found guilty of violating the constitution over a TV cookery show. His entire cabinet has also been ordered to step down. Mr Samak was found to have violated a ban on ministers having outside interests by taking money from a private company to host a TV show.

However, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) has vowed to re-appoint Mr Samak as prime minister. "I insist that our party leader will be the prime minister," Wittaya Buranasiri, the chief whip of the six-party coalition led by the PPP, told reporters.

In court in Bangkok, Judge Chat Chonlaworn said that Mr Samak had "violated Article 267 of the constitution" and that "his position as prime minister has ended". The judgment, broadcast live on television and radio, was greeted with loud cheers and claps from Mr Samak's opponents, who have occupied his office compound since the end of last month.

However, Mr Samak has not been banned from standing again for prime minister, and it will be 30 days before the court's decision comes into effect. Thailand has had its fair share of crises recently, says the BBC's Jonathan Head in Bangkok, but this is one that even the Thais are baffled by.

For the past two weeks, the Thai government has been paralysed by thousands of protesters who have occupied its office, calling for Mr Samak to resign. They have said they will remain there until Mr Samak leaves office.

Mr Samak, a self-proclaimed foodie, hosted a popular television cooking show, Tasting and Grumbling, for seven years before becoming prime minister. He continued to present the programme for two months after becoming prime minister, saying that any money he received was only used to cover his expenses. The Thai PM is already reeling from the deepening political crisis and this court ruling puts another nail in his political coffin.

However, the constitutional court has ruled that "his employment at the company can be considered an employment", and said Mr Samak gave "conflicting testimony". There was also an attempt to fabricate evidence "to hide his actions", the judge said.

Protesters accuse Mr Samak of being a proxy for former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power. Tension spilt into bloodshed last week, when a man was killed in clashes between pro- and anti-government groups in Bangkok, prompting the government to impose emergency rule in the capital.