The election last Saturday in Muang Thong Thani, just outside Bangkok, of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan as the leader of the ruling Palang Pracharat Party places key questions into the lap of the Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha. Will there be a cabinet reshuffle? Who will lead Thailand’s economic team to face an unprecedented economic crisis?
A poll published on Sunday shows that Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha is still the leading choice for prime minister as the ruling Palang Pracharat Party on Saturday elected his ‘big brother’ Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan as its leader. All eyes now are on the future of Thailand’s economic team led by the Economics Czar and Deputy Prime Minister, Somkid Jatusripitak, with strong indications that a new economics team is being assembled as Thailand girds itself to tackle the biggest economic crisis in modern history.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongwuwan was unanimously elected as the leader of the ruling Palang Pracharat political party in Thailand this Saturday at a meeting held at the Impact Convention Centre in Muang Thong Thani on the outskirts of Bangkok in Nonthaburi province.
His election followed an invitation from key groups within the party to take on the job with a mission to unite the party going forward.
Nonthaburi party meeting chaired by outgoing leader and current Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana
The meeting was chaired by the party’s former leader, Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana, who was effectively removed from his post when the party’s national executive resigned en masse on Monday 1st of June triggering Saturday’s inauguration.
The move against the party’s current leader by a range of forces within Palang Pracharat came to light at the end of April.
Sources linked with the political heave then suggested that it was time to consolidate the party, end internal divisions and prepare the ground for future elections.
At that time, the move brought a dismissive attitude from the now ex-party leader who said: ‘No phuyai (local political chief or boss) has called to ask me to resign from the party executive but I’m aware there have been such talks.’
Finance minister closely aligned with Economic Chief, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak
Mr Uttama, who, for now, still retains the position of Finance Minister, had served with the previous government under the National Council for Peace and Order or the former military junta since 2014.
He is closely linked with Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak and the more economically progressive elements in the government.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit was not present on Saturday to accept the leadership but was beamed on a video screen accepting the mandate with a wai.
Paiboon Nititawan, in his role as acting deputy leader of the party, explained: ‘To allow members to cast their votes freely, General Prawit did not attend the meeting today.’
The vote was also a secret ballot.
Party members stressed unity and adopted a new circular logo emphasising this and conformity
One of the themes of the meeting on Saturday was unity in the party.
Newly elected Secretary-General, Anucha Nakasai, who took over from the current Thai Energy Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong, was anxious to emphasise this.
At the meeting, the Palang Pracharat Party adopted a new round logo with the name of the party stamped inside blue and red circles. This was explained as symbolising unity within the party and conformity.
However, apart from Finance Minister Uttama, there was a notable absence from the national executive lists, at the election on Saturday, of one key component of the government and that was the team linked to Deputy Prime Minister Somkid.
Although the Deputy PM is not a member of the party being a technocrat and former deputy PM and Finance Minister in the administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra, he was parachuted in as Economics Czar and Deputy Prime Minister in August 2015 under Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha.
Deputy PM Somkid has been linked closely with the Finance Minister Mr Uttama and the Energy Minister, Mr Sontirat.
Deputy Prime Minister Somkid and allies are in the crosshairs as speculation grows on his future
There has been intense speculation that Deputy PM Somkid and his associates are next in the crosshairs of this heave.
These include Higher Education Minister Suvit Maesincee who was one of the key architects of the Thailand 4.0 project to overcome Thailand’s chronic and increasingly difficult position as a trapped middle-income economy being squeezed by younger and more competitive challengers in Asia.
There is also speculation about the future of the Finance Minister Mr Uttama, Energy Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong and former minister at the Office of the Prime Minister, Kobsak Pootrakul.
Mr Kobsak has been a key figure in liaising with representatives of foreign business concerns and the foreigner community in Thailand, notably and successfully, during last year’s controversy over immigration reporting requirements such as TM30.
He is said to be particularly close to Deputy PM Somkid.
Government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat tipped for promotion and leading economics role
The new secretary-general of Palang Pracharat, Mr Anucha Nakasai, represents the highly influential Sam Mitr (Three friends) faction in the party which swung the balance in favour of the new leadership some weeks before when it supported Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan for the job.
This followed a flurry of meetings between groups within the party prior to the mass resignations on June 1st.
Mr Anucha on Saturday tipped current government spokeswoman, Narumon Pinyosinwat, as an up and coming new player in a new economic team at the heart of the government.
In fact, he suggested that she would be the leader of the new economic team being proposed from within the party. The Palang Pracharat MP is a former lecturer at the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA).
Ms Narumon was handpicked in July last year by current Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha and approved by the cabinet for her current role as government spokeswoman which has been a highly responsible one during the Covid 19 emergency and crisis.
She has also, in the last month or so, been identified closely with the new Palang Pracharat leader Deputy PM Prawit.
Deputy PM Prawit requested a draft policy document on proposals to rejuvenate the faltering Thai economy
Mr Anucha, on Saturday, said that the deputy prime minister and newly installed party leader has tasked him with drawing up a draft document proposing new economic policies to rejuvenate Thailand’s faltering economy which is predicted to be facing its worst year in history.
The Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of Thailand, this week, predicted a contraction of 8.1%, even greater than the 7.6% reversal during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis for this year, 2020.
It even warned that matters may get worse if the second wave of infection now being seen worldwide, further impedes global economic prospects and threatens the reopening of Thailand’s economy.
When pressed on the future in the government of Mr Uttama, the Finance Minister and Energy Minister, Mr Sontirat, however, Mr Anucha demurred.
He indicated that he had faith in the new party leader to iron out any differences within the party.
‘If all sides share the common goal of the national interest, anything can happen. The internal rift will definitely disappear now that we have General Prawit, who is loving and caring, as our leader,’ he said.
Somkid pushed ฿1.09 trillion in public-private partnership projects on Friday to boost job creation
On Friday, the current economic leader, Deputy PM Somkid was found pushing to have ฿1.09 trillion in government public-private partnerships expedited to push the economy forward.
He held a meeting with PTT and the Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand urging them to boost investment at this time.
Deputy PM Somkid has expressed concern about the continuing high unemployment rate in Thailand and on Wednesday warned that July could see even more business concerns close their doors as the impact of the Covid 19 shutdown finally takes its toll on firms whose resources it has caused to expire with months of economic inactivity.
Scale of this economic crisis is unprecedented
The scale of this crisis is unprecedented not just for Thailand but around the world.
This week, Christine Lagarde, the former IMF leader and now the boss of the European Central Bank, described the damage inflicted by the virus as permanent in some areas.
She called for a transformational path to recovery in Europe.
‘We are not going to return to the status quo. It’s going to be different. The recovery is going to be incomplete and transformational, she said.
The Eurozone is facing a contraction of the order of 10.1% for 2020.
The one critical goal the ECB head highlighted was price stability.
Among the figures released in Thailand this week were signs that the Thai economy has become deflationary due to this hiatus with a headline inflation rate predicted by the Bank of Thailand as minus 1.7%.
Economic Czar warns any new team not to come if they have no idea how to solve Thailand’s problems
On Wednesday, facing mounting speculation and this daunting economic challenge, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid did not pull any punches.
Speaking at the launch of a new initiative for investment in youth and pioneering projects hosted by the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, he acknowledged the gravity of the situation and warned: ‘If the present team cannot get the job done, they should not stay on.’
Perhaps addressing political opponents who have him in their sights he said: ‘If the new team has no ideas about how to do it, or cannot do it, then don’t come, what is the point of change?’
He urged that the focus be not on any cabinet reshuffle which is however now emerging as a real prospect, but on the basis for any economic recovery.
‘Don’t talk about a reshuffle. That is not important,’ Deputy PM Somkid concluded.
NIDA poll shows General Prayut as the only credible Prime Minister at this point among the public
In a NIDA poll on Sunday, published by the National Institute of Development Administration, it showed 25.47% of people plumped for General Prayut as prime minister well ahead of the second-place runner in the field which was Khunying Sudarat Keyurapan of Pheu Thai.
Pheu Thai remains Thailand’s most popular political party with nearly 21% support while Palang Pracharat was second with nearly 16%.
The poll was conducted from June 22nd to 24th with a sample of over 2,500 people.
Stage set to see if a cabinet reshuffle emerges
The stage is now set to see if a cabinet reshuffle plays out and if it is as is being suggested by sources within the newly reformed Palang Pracharat Party.
Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, has consistently downplayed such speculation and always has upheld his right to decide on the cabinet and allocation of ministerial portfolios.
He is not a member of any political party.
‘Big Brother’ Prawit has now emerged as a uniquely powerful figure but the next question is for General Prayut on the leadership of the economy
However, ‘Big Brother’ or Deputy Prime Minister Prawit, who only last year was thought of as retiring from the political and public sphere on health grounds, has now reemerged as a uniquely powerful figure.
Prawit, along with the current Prime Minister Prayut and the Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda, are former army leaders and the nucleus of the former military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order.
It has been suggested that Deputy PM Prawit sees his role as leader of the Palang Pracharat Party as an interim one to unify it as a political force and that he may later hand over the leadership to General Prayut.
However, this is just speculation at this point. From last year, we also know it is difficult to predict General Prawit’s next move.
For now, Thailand faces an economic crisis and the next key question is which economic team will lead it through it. The only person who can answer that is the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha.