Thailand’s TV chef PM ousted: Is this how to serve democracy?

Elected political leaders are driven out of office by various factors – ranging from military coup de’tat and popular revolt to corruption or sex scandals. But it’s not common for a head of government to lose his job for appearing on television.

But that’s just what happened on 9 September 2008 to Thailand’s prime minister…and the headline writers worldwide couldn’t resist every imaginable cooking cliche at his expense: “Cooking show lands Thai PM in hot water”, “Thai PM grilled over cooking show”, “Thai PM in a soup”, etc.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was forced from office along with his Cabinet after Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that he had broken a conflict-of-interest law by hosting TV cooking shows while in office.

Samak Sundaravej has hosted Tasting and Complaining cooking show for years on Thai TV

Samak Sundaravej has hosted "Tasting and Complaining" cooking show for years on Thai TV

The court judgment, broadcast live on television and radio, was greeted with loud cheers and claps from Samak’s opponents who have occupied his office compound since Aug. 26 to demand his resignation. Some protesters wept with emotion.

The 73-year-old Samak, who has cooked for visiting leaders, hosted a popular television cooking show — “Tasting and Complaining” — for seven years before becoming prime minister in early 2008 after his his People Power Party (PPP) and five others won a general election. He returned Thailand to civilian rule after the army had captured power in September 2006, ousting the former populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Some say this is the first time a professional chef has become prime minister anywhere. Samak had made several TV appearances after taking office, which the court held was breaking a constitutional prohibition on private employment while in office.

Tasting and Complaining on air

To serve the Kingdom of Thailand...medium rare?

The defiant PPP, whose government is facing stiff opposition by supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), initially tried to renominate Samak as PM. But they dropped the idea like a hot potato in just a couple of days. Samak also bowed out as leader of the PPP.

As of this writing, the ruling coalition is trying to find a political leader who can form a government. The street demonstrators, one of whose main demands was the resignation of PM Samak, are watching developments with a sharp eye.

In recent weeks Samak’s government, though duly elected, has been under siege from PAD which draws its strength from among city dwellers and the elite. Although I have been visiting Thailand for 20 years, I don’t claim to understand the murky world of Thai politics. But until recently, Thais had somehow managed to keep their politics and business separate, allowing the latter to continue largely unaffected.

In the end, Samak lost his job not for any substantive lapses of governance – his opponents had lined up a long list of these – but on a legal technicality.

Samaks TV show branding

Samak's TV show branding

Samak has been involved in Thai politics for over 30 years, and since the 1990s has been promoting the art of Thai cooking on both radio and television. He started cooking at the age of 7, and his popular cookbook Chimpai Bonpai (“Tasting, Complaining”) is now in it’s 9th edition. One innovative Samak recipe: he makes pork leg stew with coca-cola.

Surely, Samak is not the first or last politician to sustain a parallel second career on television – the most dominant mass medium in most parts of Asia. Serving and aspiring leaders across Asia have deals with popular television networks that help boost their image and help their approval ratings. And in immature democracies, state-owned TV networks are grossly abused by politicians of ruling parties for outright propaganda.

Samak’s mistake was not so much continuing his TV career, but getting paid for it while holding public office. He should have just stuck to the publicity value. After all, with Thai cuisine among the most popular in the world, he could have gone far combining his culinary talents with hosting TV shows. Instead, he cooked up an avoidable storm…

Here’s the bright side: if Samak leaves politics, he has a choice of at least two lucrative careers.

Celebrity Thai chefs, anyone?

Watch the ousted Thai PM cooking in this news report on ITN News (UK):

Would the Samak cooking saga make a good film? Find out what the Guardian’s film blogger thinks!