The sudden departure of Thailand’s newly-appointed finance minister is a sign that premiership of Prayut Chan-ocha is failing.
Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha’s failure to pre-empt the sudden resignation of Finance Minister Predee Daochai on 1 September – just 20 days after the new minister assumed office – shows that his political clout may be rapidly diminishing.
Although General Prayut insists that Minister Predee quit for health reasons, there is no denying that the finance minister ran into serious political difficulties during his brief stint in office. The fact remains that General Prayut did not or could not help the embattled Predee.
Predee disagreed with Deputy Finance Minister Santi Promphat on several issues. One of their disagreements surfaced during a cabinet meeting held on 25 August. It became clear during the meeting that the two men wanted to nominate different officials to head the Excise Department. Their disagreement led to a hasty withdrawal of the appointment from the cabinet’s agenda.
On 1 September, the cabinet endorsed the appointment of the official chosen by Minister Predee, Fiscal Policy Office head Lavaron Sangsnit. This victory brought Predee some consolation in his last battle to serve General Prayut. Quite unexpectedly, he then submitted his resignation, which became effective the following day.
Predee and Santi also clashed over a surreptitious move, whereby an extension of the operational contract for a mass transit line in Bangkok was granted without going through a public tender process. Finance Minister Predee opposed this unusual measure, which his deputy Santi had reportedly proposed. Santi apparently believed that, having entered national politics in 1994, he had more political experience and therefore better attuned to the political lay of the land. Santi is also a senior deputy leader of Phalang Pracharat, the largest party in the 19-party ruling coalition. He has served as deputy finance minister since the first Prayut cabinet following Thailand’s March 2019 general elections.
On the other hand, Predee is a political greenhorn and as a result, a less shrewd operator. He is a well-respected banker, who was serving as a senior executive at Kasikorn Thai Bank and president of the Thai Bankers Association when General Prayut offered him the post of finance minister.
To put things in context, General Prayut was forced by the new leadership of the Phalang Pracharat Party to cast off his previous finance minister, Uttama Savanayana, after the party ousted him as party leader in June 2020. This development led to the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Dr Somkid Jatusripitak, who served as chief economic advisor to General Prayut. Dr Somkid was the mentor of Uttama, who was a prominent technocrat before joining the Prayut administration as the finance minister following the 2019 elections.
The new leadership of Phalang Pracharat with General Prawit Wongsuwan at the top now wants more say in running the Ministry of Finance. The party also wants its own senior members to play a greater role in advising General Prayut on economic recovery programmes. This assertiveness has clearly emboldened Deputy Minister Santi, who is now saying that he is the most qualified person to lead the ministry instead of continuing to play second fiddle to an outsider chosen by General Prayut.
After failing to defend Predee, General Prayut will now find it more difficult to recruit another qualified outsider to serve as finance minister.
The sudden departure of his latest finance minister will further erode General Prayut’s credibility as he tries to assemble a new economic ministerial team to bring about economic recovery in Thailand.
It should be said that joining the cabinet from outside the sphere of politics, as Predee did, requires great personal sacrifice. Having volunteered his services to serve as finance minister while Thailand was suffering from the pandemic-induced economic crisis, he is now barred by law from employment in any finance-related sector for two years. He must have taken this potentially significant loss of income into consideration before accepting the ministerial post.
But what he underestimated was the political obstacles that he would encounter after assuming the post. Predee’s health was also an issue. Occasional numbness in Predee’s left arm reportedly recurred more frequently as he tried to cope with tensions of his new office. His doctor cautioned him to avoid stress, or risked an ischemic stroke and irreversible paralysis.
The overriding factor in Predee’s sudden resignation, however, was General Prayut’s unwillingness or inability to save him. The sudden departure of his latest finance minister will further erode General Prayut’s credibility as he tries to assemble a new economic ministerial team to bring about economic recovery in Thailand. His continuing failure on the economic front will give more ammunition to student protesters demanding his ouster and the drafting of a new and truly democratic constitution. The protesters will rally at Thammasat University’s Tha Phrachan campus in central Bangkok starting on 19 September in order press their demands for political reforms, including a new constitution.
General Prayut’s style of aloofness and strategy of staying above the political fray is proving to be counter-productive. He has only himself to blame for his failing premiership.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.