Is ‘economics tsar’ Somkid Jatusripitak preparing to make a comeback?

Thailand Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of World Economic Forum on Mekong region in Hanoi on October 25, 2016. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Famed as Thailand’s top “economics tsar”, former deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak has served both elected governments and a junta regime during his long and colorful career.

Somkid, 68, abruptly quit the current coalition government led by the Palang Pracharath Party last July, citing health reasons. Saying goodbye with him were four ministers of his economics team – finance minister Uttama Savanayana, minister of higher education, science, research, and innovation Suvit Maesincee, energy minister Sontirat Sontijirawong, and Kobsak Pootrakool, deputy secretary-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Somkid and his team were forced to leave after a power struggle within the party.

However, one year on, a move by his close aide Uttama amid the COVID-induced economic crisis is fuelling speculation that Somkid is poised to make a comeback.

A return to politics?

Somkid and his team failed to reverse the recent pattern of sluggish economic growth, and public frustration grew. The COVID-19 pandemic made the situation worse, with Thailand’s economy suffering a sharp contraction of 6.1 percent last year. However, the economic situation looks a little better following Somkid’s departure since the government has not yet managed to bring COVID-19 under control.

Sources close to Somkid believe he is poised to make a political comeback, but the man himself is keeping quiet.

Early this month, Uttama was appointed chairman of the Thailand Future Foundation’s advisory board. Founded by Somkid in 2012, the foundation is a think-tank sponsored by major Thai corporations which provide research and consultation services to public agencies and the private sector.

Soon after, Uttama made his first public statement since resigning as finance minister last year.

Writing on Facebook, Uttama promoted the foundation as an open forum driving the country’s development agenda, calling on people from all walks of life to join. The foundation’s membership encompassed different professions, backgrounds, and generations, he said.

Supporters commenting on the post urged him to establish a political party, but Uttama did not respond. Media outlets began speculating that Somkid, Uttama, and others were preparing to launch a new political outfit.

Nattaporn Jatusripitak, Somkid’s nephew and a chairman of the foundation, denied the speculation.

He said the foundation will continue to be a think-tank, playing a similar role as the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), plus holding workshops and other activities with state agencies.

“We will not transform the foundation into a political party, but I do not know what Uttama, personally, will do about politics,” he said.

Nattaporn added that the foundation had appointed Uttama as head adviser because of his experience as a policymaker.

Meanwhile, the other two former ministers close to Somkid, Suvit and Kobsak, have said they are no longer interested in politics.

This photo released and taken by the Royal Thai Government on April 19, 2018 shows Alibaba founder Jack Ma (L) meeting Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha (2L), Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak (3nd R) and Minister of Industry Uttama Savanayana (R) at the Government House in Bangkok. (Photo by Thai Government)

PM’s post in his sights?

Some political analysts have dismissed the idea that Somkid and his close aides are set to establish a political party.

“Somkid and Uttama do not have a political base,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Ubon Ratchathani University’s Political Science Faculty.

Moreover, a platform under Somkid and his team is unlikely to attract new political supporters, while the Move Forward Party still maintains the momentum of its progressive agenda, he noted.

Titipol pointed to the subdued public interest in the recently launched Thai Srang Thai Party of Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan. Sudarat last year left the opposition Pheu Thai Party, a successor to Thai Rak Thai.

However, former colleagues of Somkid say he still harbors political ambitions that once included the prime minister’s post, so he is unlikely to remain low-profile when the opportunity arises.

Somkid still enjoys credit for helping Thaksin manage the economy. His previous political connections may favor him if the political tide starts to change. But he could also pay dearly for his past association with the junta, which may have left him with few friends in the liberal camp, according to an informed source. 

From elected govt to junta regime

Somkid is among only a few academics whose experience managing the country’s economic affairs spans the Thaksin Shinawatra era, the junta government that followed, and the current coalition government under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

He obtained a Ph.D. in marketing from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago.

After graduating, he began lecturing at the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA)’s graduate school of business administration and became an associate professor in marketing. He also served as associate dean of NIDA Business School. He went on to work for leading private companies, before eventually launching his career in politics.

Somkid was a co-founder of the Manager Media Group with Sondhi Limthongkul, who played a key role in helping Thaksin win an election and then in organizing political protests to oust him from power.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (R) speaks next to Finance Minister Somkid Jatusripitak during the presentation to parliament of the country’s 2002 budget 27 June 2001. (Photo by Pornchai Kittiwongsakul AFP)

The man behind Thaksinomics

Somkid was a co-founder of the Thai Rak Thai party in 1998, along with party leader Thaksin, who went on to serve as prime minister for two terms (2001-2006) before being deposed by a military coup. Under Thaksin, Somkid served as finance minister, commerce minister, and deputy prime minister. He was credited with formulating the set of economics policies dubbed “Thaksinomics”, under which Thai GDP recovered following the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Somkid helped Thaksin implement populist policies, highlighted by universal healthcare coverage and a revolving-loan scheme for over 70,000 villages and communities across the country.

The two schemes proved popular and have survived to this day. However, the coup against Thaksin in 2006 changed the destiny of many politicians, Somkid among them.

In May 2007, the Constitutional Court dissolved the Thai Rak Thai Party and banned all 111 of its executive members, including Somkid, from holding political office for five years.

After the 2014 coup that ousted Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, the junta appointed Somkid as an advisor in charge of foreign economic relations. Pridiyathorn Devakula was appointed deputy prime minister responsible for economic affairs.

Prayut’s regime then came into conflict with Pridiyathorn, who opposed the junta’s plan to extend its stay in power. In August 2015, the junta replaced him with Somkid as its economics chief and deputy prime minister.

By Thai PBS World’s Business desk

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