Cabinet shake-up looms as COVID-19 crisis eases
After three months of almost no political activity due to the COVID-19 lockdown, Thai politicians have wasted no time getting back to “business as usual”.
A fierce fight has broken out within the core coalition Palang Pracharath Party as factions vie for coveted posts in the party’s executive leadership and in Cabinet. The main target is the “Four Boys” – the Cabinet quartet of economic technocrats overseen by Deputy PM Somkid Jatusripitak, whose days look numbered.
The infighting marks the return of old-school Thai politics, where factions battle for their “fair share” of ministerial portfolios based not on their candidates’ qualifications, but on the number of MPs they can muster.
As Thais focus on adapting to the “new normal” of social distancing and face masks, politicians have reverted to old-fashioned “dirty politics” – something Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha vowed to stamp out when, as Army chief, he led the 2014 coup to overthrow an elected government.
Six years on, General Prayut finds himself surrounded by the very politicking he claims to hate. Palang Pracharath factions are scrapping furiously for Cabinet seats – a headache he never had to deal with in his first post-coup government, which was free of politicians.
A Cabinet reshuffle of seats held by Palang Pracharath members now appears inevitable, despite Prayut insisting that this is no time for a change and chiding journalists when pressed on the possibility of a shake-up.
“Making changes to the Cabinet line-up is my responsibility but the time for this is not now. Stop reporting this issue as if it’s a dramatic soap opera,” Prayut told the press on Tuesday.
“Don’t keep asking me about a possible Cabinet reshuffle. I will tell you when it’s time. Sometimes I change the Cabinet line-up without anyone telling me to do so,” he added.
Palang Pracharath will select a new executive board at its general meeting in early July, meaning a Cabinet reshuffle is unlikely to take place before August.
Prayut has repeatedly stressed that as head of government, he has final say on the Cabinet line-up. Technically this is true, but in reality he must heed demands from powerful Palang Pracharath politicians if he wants to maintain party unity and his grip on government.
Prayut will need to negotiate over who he wants to keep in his Cabinet, a task made more difficult after members of the Somkid-led team lost their executive seats following a party “purge”. Politicians are tipped to spend a lot of time haggling before final decisions on Cabinet posts are reached.
On June 1, Palang Pracharath’s executive board was dissolved after more than half of its members – 18 out of 34 – quit. Observers said the move was aimed at forcing changes to the current leadership.
Party regulations require that a new board be elected at a general meeting within 45 days, giving a deadline of July 15. The party’s acting registrar, Wichian Chawalid, said the general meeting would be held on July 4 at the soonest, and on July 12 at the latest.
The meeting is expected to anoint chief party strategist and Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan as party leader, replacing Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana.
Uttama is a member of the “Four Boys”, non-MP party executives whose Cabinet seats are believed to be the main targets of the party purge. Another is party caretaker secretary-general Sontirat Sontijirawong, whose post as energy minister is thought to have been targeted by Suriya Juangroongruangkit, a leader of the Sam Mit (Three Friends) faction. Suriya’s current job as industry minister is expected to be handed to Anucha Nakhasai, a candidate for the party’s next secretary-general.
Uttama and caretaker deputy party leader Suvit Maesincee are tipped to lose their Cabinet seats. Media reports suggest that former Bank of Thailand governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul and Pailin Chuchottaworn, who served as deputy transport minister in Prayut’s post-coup government, are two leading candidates for Uttama’s post as finance minister. Initially, Santi Promphat, another candidate for the party secretary-general’s post, was tipped to take the job.
The Four Boys have given conflicting responses to pressure within the party to oust them from the executive board and likely also the Cabinet. It appears that some have admitted defeat, while others are putting up a fight.
Suvit, who is also minister of higher education, science, research and innovation, said he wants to “distance” himself from party politics, but believes the final say on the Cabinet line-up lies in the hands of Prayut.
Uttama brushed aside politicking directed at him and his fellow “Four Boys”, saying he was only focused on his ministry.
Sontirat, on the other hand, has been meeting party members in an apparent attempt to secure their votes so he can retain his executive seat.
The last of the “Boys” – Palang Pracharath’s caretaker executive member Kobsak Pootrakool, who is the PM’s deputy secretary-general for political affairs – has chosen to keep quiet.
However, their mentor Somkid, who is in charge of the government’s economics team, recently came to his defence, describing him as being among the few capable persons with a clean record in Thai politics but had become disillusioned by “too much politicking”.
Kobsak, who served as the PM’s Office minister in Prayut’s previous, military-led administration, was qualified for a Cabinet seat in this government but failed to get appointed.
The “Four Boys”, who all served in General Prayut’s post-coup government, gave up their ministerial seats in September 2018 to lead Palang Pracharath, which was founded in March that year by two little-known men who described themselves as General Prayut’s admirers.
However, the quartet led Palang Pracharath in name only.
It’s an open secret that General Prawit enjoys the status of de facto party leader, commanding respect from all factions. Plus, he has the backing of his brother-in-arms, General Prayut, who leads the country and was the party’s only PM candidate.
By ThaiPBS World’s Political Desk