As a TV chef, Thai P.M. cooked his own goose

Prime Minister Samak was forced to quit Tuesday, after a court ruled he'd broken the law by hosting two TV cooking shows while in office.

Out: Samak, who lost his job for hosting a cooking show while in office, visited a market Tuesday.
Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
Celebration: Protesters at Prime Minister Samak’s office complex in Bangkok rejoiced Tuesday after Thailand’s Constitutional Court disqualified him for the premiership because he’d hosted two cooking shows while in office. The protesters have been occupying the area in an effort to unseat Samak.

In this food-obsessed nation, every politician wants to be pictured in an apron standing over a hot wok.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej relished this role. As the brash TV chef on "Tasting and Grumbling" – one of two cooking shows he hosted – he served up a combative blend of opinion, market visits, restaurant tips, and recipes like Pigs' Legs in Coca-Cola.

Over a long and checkered career, Mr. Samak's fiery rhetoric on TV and in office has often landed him in hot water. But it may be his fiery curries that finally burned him.

On Tuesday, the Constitutional Court ruled that Samak had broken the law by hosting the TV shows while in office and ordered him to quit, adding a fresh batch of uncertainty to Thailand's spicy politics.

He may yet make a political comeback, as his strategists huddle to digest the court's surprise ruling. The People's Power Party, which he heads, said Tuesday it would nominate Samak to replace himself as premier.

During his seven months as prime minister, Samak, a stout man with a famously hot temper, whipped out his apron and served up food to Thai soldiers on the disputed border with Cambodia and later to Thai Olympians in Beijing.

In this, as in many other areas, he echoed his controversial predecessor Thaksin Shinawatra, who was unseated in a coup two years ago while attending a meeting at the United Nations. Mr. Thaksin liked to show his skills on the communal stir-fry, usually when the TV cameras were rolling.

In 2004, at the height of a regional bird flu scare, Thaksin joined a chicken- and egg-eating fair in a park in Bangkok to restore public confidence in poultry. He pitched in to help with the cooking of a giant stew using 10,000 eggs, a world-record attempt.

Samak's take on Bangkok's famed street food – a dizzying spread of curries, salads, soups, and meat dishes – didn't meet everyone's taste. Foodies sniffed that his slapdash recipes offered little new and that their originator was too sure of himself yet didn't teach the audience much.

"He's very confident that he knows all about food and cooking well. He's very proud," says Suwan Chakchit, founder of Baipai Thai Cooking School in Bangkok. "But he's overconfident about his [food] knowledge."

Samak also proved overconfident in his reading of the 2007 constitution, which says that cabinet ministers can't moonlight for private companies because it might stir up a conflict of interest.

On Monday, he testified to the court that he hadn't broken the law, because he wasn't an employee of the cooking programs. The court dismissed this defense, though, and scolded the defendant for misleading answers.

Samak wasn't in the courtroom Tuesday. In typical style, he began the day by touring an outdoor food market in northeast Thailand before attending a cabinet meeting, and then flew back to Bangkok, where he gave reporters the slip.

Given the laundry list of complaints against Samak's administration, including allegations of corruption and closet republicanism – a grave crime in Thailand's constitutional monarchy – being struck down for illegal on-air cooking is a curious misdemeanor. But in a political war of attrition, every strike counts.

Moreover, with its broad interpretation of the constitutional ban on moonlighting, the court has sent a clear message to Thai politicians who thrive on legal loopholes, says James Klein, country representative of the Asia Foundation. "Al Capone – they got him for tax evasion. They got this guy for doing a cooking show. It's the principle," he says.

Opposition activists from the People's Alliance for Democracy, which has occupied Samak's offices for two weeks in an effort to unseat him, cheered the verdict, which was shown live on TV. But they aren't packing up their tents yet, after the court left open the possibility of another Samak-led cabinet.

In public, Samak has shown no sign of backing down in the standoff with the PAD, a grouping of businessmen, academics, and royalists. His bulldog image, cultivated over decades of right-wing politicking, meshes with his on-screen persona as an ebullient foodie who charges into food markets and tells vendors how to prepare their dishes.

That brash approach is a turn-off for professional cooks, but it plays well among the urban poor in Bangkok who elected Samak as the city's governor in 2000 and continue to see him as a champion of their cause.

Gaysorn Mala, a cook in a family-run restaurant, says Samak has shown Thais how to prepare many tasty dishes. She enthuses over his ability to cross over from the kitchen to the parliament and back, proving that being a dab hand at dishes can translate into public life.

"He can do anything. He can cook food in the kitchen and do many other things, so I guess he can definitely be prime minister," she says, during a break from her smoking wok.

Earlier this year, as pork prices rose and newspapers groused about the economy, Samak recommended Thais eat a cheap soup made with chicken bones and squash called sikrong kaitomfuk. "You can make a nice soup for the whole family. It tastes just great," he said, according to Reuters.

But Tuesday's guilty verdict may not be the last to stick in Samak's throat. Last week, the Election Commission approved a campaign-fraud case against his People's Power Party. The Constitutional Court may now decide to dissolve the party, the same fate that was meted out last year to its predecessor, Thai Rak Thai, that Thaksin founded a decade ago.

A defamation suit against Samak is also pending. He has appealed against a lower court that found him guilty over comments he made on his TV show about a rival politician. He also faces at least three corruption cases.

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