A combative veteran politician representing ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's interests was chosen as premier Monday, a move that could put him on a collision course with the military that ousted Thaksin in a 2006 coup.
Samak Sundaravej easily beat the Democrat party candidate 310-163 in a parliamentary vote, taking a key step toward restoring democracy, but experts fear the election of a Thaksin supporter may further divide Thailand.
Samak, 72, has made no secret that he is Thaksin's proxy, saying in an interview: "I have to bring (Thaksin) back to the limelight. We will use the same policies."
"It is likely to be a turbulent premiership ahead," said Panithan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Analysts say Samak's political fortunes will wax or wane in line with those of Thaksin, who has vowed to return from exile in May to face a slew of corruption charges.
Samak has assembled a six-party coalition with about two-thirds of the 480 seats in the House. But he faces the suspicions of Thaksin's powerful foes — the military that toppled him and the country's elite, including elements associated with the country's monarchy.
Samak has indicated a willingness to try to undo post-coup sanctions imposed on the former leader and his political machine.
He takes office with a past as an ultra-right-wing rabble-rouser, a continuing corruption probe, and a long-standing bent for acid-tongued confrontation.
But he's also a wily survivor of four decades in the turbulent Thai political arena and remains popular with lower middle-class voters.
Known for his cooking show
Many Samak supporters would be hard pressed to describe his policies, but fondly remember him for his TV cooking show called "Tasting and Complaining," a mix of traditional Thai cooking and rants on Samak's pet subjects.
"I don't like Samak. He is rude, he fights with everyone and doesn't have respect for anyone, said taxi driver Ekawat Santirat. "But I know Thaksin wants him as prime minister. And I love Thaksin. He was good to us and he did nothing wrong. Samak can bring him home."
Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved after his 2006 ouster but former members formed the People's Power Party, which named Samak as its leader last August.
The party won the most parliamentary seats in a December 2007 general election, topping the second-place Democrats, and Samak then assembled a six-party coalition to back his bid to form a government.
But he will have to keep his planned coalition in line, while tangling with an array of opponents — the opposition Democrat Party, a powerful military and pro-democracy activists who led the mass street protests which led to Thaksin's downfall.
Judicial bodies, a partly-appointed non-partisan Senate and independent watchdogs, newly empowered after Thaksin's crash, will be watching him closely.
Samak has said that if he became prime minister he might try to dissolve a committee set up by coup leaders to investigate corruption charges against Thaksin, and possibly declare an amnesty for Thaksin and 110 of his allies who have been barred from politics for five years.
Corruption inquiry while mayor
Samak himself is under a legal shadow, accused of malfeasance for signing two questionable contracts while serving as mayor of Bangkok. Both deals — a garbage contract in 2003 and the purchase of fire trucks in 2004 — allegedly were marred by bidding irregularities. The case remains under investigation.
Potentially more damaging is a two-year jail sentence for defaming a former deputy mayor of Bangkok, a case now under appeal. Thailand's constitution says people sentenced to prison terms cannot hold Cabinet positions.
Samak has held eight Cabinet posts and served more than 20 years as a member of parliament since entering politics in 1968.
"He has waited three decades, trying to become prime minister but never came close," said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, another Chulalongkorn University political scientist. "Now, it's handed to him in a platter."