The new executive committee of the Phalang Pracharat Party (PPP), in front of the poster proclaiming General Prawit Wongsuwan as the new party leader. (Photo: Phalang Pracharat Party, Facebook)

Thai Cabinet Overhaul in the Offing?

Published

Thailand will soon be looking at another cabinet reshuffle. But there is more than meets the eye. The prime minister’s relationship with the ruling Phalang Pracharat Party remains tenuous.

The long-anticipated revamp of the leadership of  Phalang Pracharat Party (PPP) on 27 June 2020 has significant implications not only for the internal workings of the core party of Thailand’s ruling coalition but also for Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha’s political future.

Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan was elected to serve as the PPP’s new leader. Having previously served as the party’s chief strategist and fund-raiser, he was unopposed in his bid for the post of party leader. Assisting him as the new PPP secretary-general is Anucha Nakasai, a veteran politician from the Central Plains province of Chainat.

Anucha is close to Industry Minister Suriya Juangroongruangkit and Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin. The two two ministers had engineered the party leadership overhaul because of their unhappiness with former party leader Uttama Savanayana and former party secretary-general Sonthirat Sonthijirawong.

Both Uttama and Sonthirat – who are the Finance Minister and Energy Minister respectively – have now been dropped from the party’s executive committee.  Their allies – Higher Education Minister Suvit Maesincee and prime minister’s aide Kobsak Pootrakool – have also been excluded from the committee. The quartet are not professional politicians, and they had weak links to politicians inside the PPP.  They are technocrats, and once vaunted as the “whiz kids” of Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak. Dr Somkid has been the chief economic advisor to the prime minister since General Prayut seized power in the May 2014 coup.

Now, the days of the whiz kids and Dr Somkid appear to be numbered. The new PPP leadership has been pestering Prayut to reshuffle his cabinet sooner rather than later. In fact, a cabinet reshuffle had already become became necessary a fortnight ago, when Labour Minister Chatumongol Sonakul resigned from the leadership of the Action Coalition for Thailand (ACT), a minor government party. He also left the ACT, a move that requires him to give up his ministerial post. 

Not to be satisfied easily, however, the new PPP leadership wants further major changes in the cabinet line-up. Suriya aspires to be finance minister, or at least energy minister.  Somsak, too, believes that he deserves a bigger cabinet portfolio than the relatively smaller Ministry of Justice.  He is known to covet the post of agriculture minister. And of course, the PPP’s party secretary-general, Anucha, should be able to bag a cabinet post, too.

As part of the changes in PPP leadership,  Dr Narumon Pinyosinwat now becomes head of the PPP economic policy team,  in addition to continuing as the party treasurer. The 40-year-old mother of two, and holder of a doctorate in finance from the Wharton School, is being touted as a possible replacement for Dr Somkid as the new chief economic advisor to the prime minister. Now serving as government spokesperson, she was formerly deputy finance minister.

Prayut’s bargaining power with the PPP — of which he is technically not a member —  hangs in the balance, despite his having gained popular support after Thailand’s successful fight against Covid-19.  His room for manoeuvring in conducting a cabinet reshuffle is therefore limited.

All eyes are now on Prayut’s next move. The prime minister is playing his cards close to his chest. The paradox here: he dislikes having to deal with demanding politicians, yet he depends on them to shore up the ruling coalition.

Prayut’s relationship with Prawit – whom he respects as his “big brother” – remains an enigma.  The prime minister made Prawit his defence minister during the five years of the military government that took power in 2014. After the general election last year, however, Prayut took the defence minister post for himself in the 19-party coalition government. He had in effect sidelined Prawit to languish as merely one of five deputy prime ministers.

However, Prawit’s rise to lead the PPP indicates that this 75-year-old former Army chief is not going to fade away just yet. His supporters in the new PPP leadership want him to re-exert himself as the true power behind Prayut’s premiership. They want to see Prawit reclaim the defence portfolio — or, better still, take the post of interior minister.

The Interior Ministry is instrumental in vetting local community development projects to revive the rural economy devastated by the pandemic. It is supported by emergency government expenditure of 400,000 million baht. More importantly, the ministry will also be in charge of organising the upcoming local government elections. Both the projects and the local elections represent lucrative opportunities for politicians aligned with the government to cash in on and to strengthen their local power bases.

The current interior minister is the relatively low-key 70-year-old former Army chief General Anupong Paochinda. Anupong and Prawit helped Prayut seize power in the coup, and all three generals emerged from the same Burapha Phayak or “Eastern Tigers” faction of the Thai armed forces.

All eyes are now on Prayut’s next move. The prime minister is playing his cards close to his chest. The paradox here: he dislikes having to deal with demanding politicians, yet he depends on them to shore up the ruling coalition. 

Should Prayut call it quits, then the new PPP leadership would want Prawit to take over the premiership.   If this happens, those senior PPP politicians would have a field day and will grab key ministerial posts at will.

On the other hand, if Prayut wants to resist mounting political pressure, he has the trump card: he can dissolve the House of Representatives and call a new general election. As much as he depends on the PPP, Prayut still has the last say in the end.

2020/91