PM Prayut may have his way in Cabinet reshuffle, but bigger challenge lies ahead
Despite being coerced into reshuffling his Cabinet by factions in the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has at least succeeded in resisting pressure from political veterans and stamping his authority on the ministerial selection.
Observers, however, see his first Cabinet shake-up as only a temporary end to the tug-of-war within the core party of the coalition, but are divided as to when the government’s stability will be shaken again.
Most of them agree that Prayut has an advantage, since the current junta-sponsored charter was designed to allow the post-coup regime to retain power after the March 2019 general elections. Without charter amendment, Prayut is unlikely to be easily ousted from office.
“So far, the premier has been successful in halting the power struggle within the ruling party, but his government’s stability will be rocked again when the charter amendment process begins,” said Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University.
The reshuffle was seen as a bid to end disharmony in the ruling party triggered by the powerful Sam Mitr (Three Friends) faction, which had pressed Prayut for more than two months to hand it party executive seats and juicy Cabinet portfolios.
The faction wanted its leader, incumbent Industry Minister Suriya Juangroongruangkit, to take over former party secretary-general Sontirat Sontijirawong’s energy portfolio and have the industry portfolio handed to Anucha Nakasai, the party’s new secretary-general.
In the end, Anucha only became PM’s Office minister, while Suriya stayed put as industry minister.
In contrast, secretaries-general of other coalition parties, such as Bhumjaithai’s Saksayam Chidchob and the Democrats’ Chalermchai Sri-on, are able to keep their “A” grade portfolios – the ministries of Transport and of Agriculture and Cooperatives, respectively.
“The faction is certainly unhappy with the Cabinet shake-up, but they may have to be patient and wait for a while,” Wanwichit said.
Regarding the warning from core Sam Mitr members of a reshuffle “aftershock”, Wanwichit said that as soon as the door for charter amendment opens, politicians will likely run wild again – even those who supported the junta’s extended stay in power.
Calls for the drafting of a new charter are growing louder after anti-establishment protesters, mostly led by university students, returned to the streets last month.
Observers said provisions in the charter – such as the one enabling the 250 junta-appointed senators to vote for a new PM along with the 500-member lower House, and a mixed-member proportional electoral system that makes every vote count for both candidate and party – helped the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party form a coalition government despite coming second in the election. The party’s sole prime ministerial candidate, General Prayut, became premier again – with unanimous backing from the Senate.
“Once charter amendment is unlocked, the power of senators will be reduced and the preferential electoral system will be changed, thus freeing the politicians [from the powers that be],” Wanwichit said.
Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, agreed that as long as Prayut has senators supporting him, he still has an advantage. Meanwhile charter change is a long, drawn out process and will not take place any time soon, he added.
Prayut’s government may enjoy political stability for another three months but would then face an acid test from three key events, Yuthaporn said.
First, three months from now, the public will be able to evaluate the abilities of the new ministers. Second, the final quarter will arrive and unemployment figures and company performances will be revealed to show exactly how bad the economy is doing. And third, the anti-government protests may grow much bigger.
Unimpressive new faces
In the long-waited announcement of the new Cabinet line-up last week, the post of finance minister went to Predee Daochai, former co-president of Kasikornbank (KBank) and chairman of the Thai Bankers’ Association; Anucha, secretary-general of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, became PM’s Office minister; the new Higher Education, Science and Innovations minister is Anek Laothamatas, an executive of the Action Coalition for Thailand Party (ACT); Supattanapong Punmeechaow, the former director of PTT Global Chemical, is deputy PM and Energy chief; Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai now doubles as deputy premier; and Palang Pracharath’s deputy leader, Suchart Chomklin, is the new labour minister with former government spokesperson Narumon Pinyosinwat as his deputy.
Prayut managed to retain the economics-related portfolios of Finance and Energy under his prime minister’s quota, to the bitter disappointment of Sam Mitr faction which had targeted both posts. However, experts believe the new line-up is designed more to stabilise the ruling party than to benefit the national interest.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, political science dean at Ubon Ratchathani University, said the reshuffle showed no attempt at political reform but was in fact a reward for those who supported the coup.
He cited the appointment of Anek from ACT, a party that was founded by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former leader of the yellow-shirt People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). Protests by the PDRC played a vital role in toppling Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, after her Pheu Thai Party proposed a blanket amnesty bill that would have exonerated her brother and former PM Thaksin, among others.
“Choosing a person with conservative views to oversee higher education may impede progress in both education and democracy. This [Anek’s appointment] may be seen as a mechanism created by the government to control universities and student activism,” Titipol said.
The Prayut government is facing student-led protests demanding Constitutional amendments and the dissolution of Parliament.
Wanwichit said he had expected bigger changes to the Cabinet. He gave Prayut only six out of 10 for reshuffle, citing two reasons.
First, he said, Prayut failed to demonstrate how new Finance Minister Predee and Energy Minister Supattanapong were an upgrade on their predecessors.
“Both may be ‘somebody’ in their professional fields, but they are ‘nobody’ in the eyes of the public. So, if their expertise is not promoted [to the public], both could end up with zero political charisma [in the eyes of voters],” Wanwichit said.
The reshuffle was sparked by last month’s mass resignation of the Cabinet economics team, a quartet of technocrats known as the “Four Boys” and their mentor. Finance minister Uttama Savanayana, energy minister Sontirat, minister of higher education, science, research and innovation Suvit Maesincee and Kobsak Pootrakool, deputy secretary-general to the PM for political affairs, led by then-deputy PM Somkid Jatusripitak, quit their posts after weeks of pressure from Palang Pracharath Party factions. The ministers had earlier been ousted from the party’s executive board.
The reshuffle’s second major shortcoming, said Wanwichit, was the appointment of former government spokesperson Narumon as deputy labour minister “at the request of” Palang Pracharath Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan.
Narumon, known to be a member of Prawit’s inner circle, had been criticised for her lacklustre performance as spokesperson.
“This [Narumon’s appointment] risks stirring bad feeling within the party among those who think they are more capable than her,” Wanwichit said.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk