updated 9/17/2008 6:20:00 AM ET 2008-09-17T10:20:00

A brother-in-law of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was elected the new leader of Thailand on Wednesday, a development likely to intensify the country's heated political crisis.

The lower house of Parliament voted 298-163 in favor of Somchai Wongsawat, 61, whose controversial candidacy had initially divided the ruling party and drew fierce opposition from anti-government protesters currently occupying the prime minister's compound. Five lawmakers abstained from the vote.

"I would like to thank everyone for your confidence. I will carry out my duty to the best of my ability," Somchai said, standing from his seat in Parliament after the house speaker read out the final tally. He then walked over to opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva and shook his hand.

The ruling People's Power Party and its governing coalition hold 306 of the lower house's 480 seats.

The arrival of a new prime minister marked a small step forward in Thailand's tumultuous political crisis but not one likely to defuse it.

The prospect of a prime minister related to the disgraced, deposed Thaksin and linked to his allies in the ruling People's Power Party was unlikely to disperse anti-government protesters who have been camped at the prime minister's official compound since Aug. 26, and it could inflame them further.

More than 2,200 police and soldiers were deployed in the Parliament area, police said.

Somchai was education minister and became the acting prime minister after Samak Sundaravej was forced from office last week when a court found him guilty of violating the constitution by accepting pay for hosting TV cooking shows.

Political baggage
Urbane and well-spoken, Somchai has the kind of bureaucratic experience favored by Thailand's ruling class, having served more than 20 years as a judge before entering government.

But he comes with the political baggage of being a brother-in-law of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is now in exile in London after fleeing his country to escape corruption charges. Thaksin's political legacy is a prime target of anti-government protesters.

Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, is accused of buying his way into power and then enriching himself at the country's expense. His ouster came after months of demonstrations by the People's Alliance for Democracy, which then took aim at Samak, whom they accused of being Thaksin's proxy.

Government House stormed
The alliance and tens of thousands of its supporters stormed Government House on Aug. 26 with the goal of kicking Samak out of office. But their goals have since shifted. Now they oppose Somchai or any other member of the People's Power Party.

Somchai has said the government will be temporarily based at Bangkok's old international airport, since the protesters refuse to leave Government House and authorities do not want to use force to remove them.

The protest alliance complains that Western-style democracy gives too much power to the rural poor, who they say are susceptible to vote buying. They propose replacing an elected Parliament with one that is mostly appointed, a move critics charge is meant to keep power in the hands of the educated elite.

Dissent within the party prevented Parliament from picking a new prime minister last Friday, when enough lawmakers from the party and its partners in the governing six-party coalition boycotted the session to make a vote legally impossible. The party had planned to nominate Samak, but he withdrew after the boycott.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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