September 18, 2008 / 7:01 AM / 11 years ago

Thai finance minister Surapong quits

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee said on Thursday he was stepping down due to a legal case hanging over him, meaning he will not be in the cabinet of incoming Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

Thailand's Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee attends a stock exchange event in Bangkok in this July 28, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

The Supreme Court agreed in July to hear accusations that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his ministers, including Surapong, infringed lottery laws in 2003. Analysts expect the court to take months to rule on the case.

“I don’t want to hold on to power as the court case is pending,” he told reporters.

Former Finance Minister Thanong Bidaya and private banker Olarn Chaipravat have emerged as front runners to replace him, the Nation daily reported.

Thanong was a top private banker and twice finance minister, presiding over the devaluation of the baht that led to the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Olarn was a senior adviser to Surapong.

Analysts expected little change in economic policy if Surapong stepped down. His replacement would be saddled with the same policy paralysis that has hampered the government since street protests began in late May.

“The only concern is about the government’s economic stimulus package imposed by Surapong. We are unsure whether it will continue or not or have any changes,” said Kasikorn Securities head of research Kavee Chukitkasem.

“Who is going to take this high-risk position amid financial turmoil?” he added.

Sukhumpong Ngonekham, deputy secretary-general of the People Power Party (PPP), which leads the six-party coalition, said up to five ministers might not return to cabinet after Somchai was elected by parliament on Wednesday.

“There will be some changes in the new government as four to five current ministers are not willing to join, including Dr. Surapong,” Sukhumpong told reporters.

Surapong is PPP secretary-general. He is a medical doctor who owned a chain of weight-loss clinics before entering politics.

Parliament elected Somchai, a brother-in-law of Thaksin, as prime minister on Wednesday to replace Samak Sundaravej, who had to step down last week after being found guilty of a conflict of interest.

His cabinet also had to resign but they remained as caretaker ministers.

The election of Somchai will ensure continued tension with anti-government protesters who accuse the People Power Party of being a puppet of Thaksin.

Somchai, a 61-year-old former judge and government bureaucrat married to Thaksin’s younger sister, won a majority of parliamentary votes as the six-party ruling coalition held firm.

A swearing-in ceremony is due to take place at his home in Bangkok later on Thursday after he receives royal endorsement.

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