A flurry of phone calls and approaches to top business and financial executives in the past week has been made as Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha seeks to assemble the most formidable economic team to replace the one that resigned en masse last week. The purpose is twofold – to give Thailand the best talent in government but also to fend off claims on seats in the cabinet from within the ruling Palang Pracharat Party where a push for more senior-level representation has arisen amongst some disgruntled elements within the party that put General Prayut into power last year. These ranks, at the end of June, helped elect the current leader of Palang Pracharat, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, which some members see as bringing about change at cabinet-level and a means of building ‘unity’ by displacing non-aligned cabinet members.
The Prime Minister is facing an unprecedented political challenge following the resignation of the government’s economic team, last week, which had worked with him for the last five years from the second year of the junta in 2015. The crux of the problem is the allocation of cabinet portfolios following an agreement with other political parties to support the prime minister’s election last year with those seats allocated to the ruling party, Palang Pracharat, that nominated him as Prime Minister, being thrown together with the PM’s own choice of independent ministers at the time.
The resignation of Thailand’s core economic ministerial team on Wednesday and Thursday last week has left the Prime Minister now exposed to ongoing pressure by MPs in Thailand’s ruling Palang Pracharat Party who are seeking more cabinet representation and seats at the government table.
The PM is not a member of the ruling party but his close associate and confidant, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, became its leader at the end of June having joined the party after last year’s General Election outcome and formation of a coalition government.
Threat to the stability of the current government
A meeting of the Palang Pracharat Party’s executive board this week at its headquarters in Bangkok and the subsequent reaction to it gives some idea of the emerging political tensions.
Members of the newly elected executive of the party were reported to have expected and wanted to hear how the party was going to address the forthcoming cabinet reshuffle.
Political observers have long warned that infighting within the Palang Pracharat Party and indeed other key parties such as the Democrat and Bhumjaithai Parties looks set to threaten the stability of the government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha at some point in time.
Some experts suggest that the election of Deputy PM Wongsuwan will help bring the ruling party together behind the government leader but this will take great skill.
First Executive board meeting of Palang Pracharat last week saw new leader focus on finances of the party and not the government or cabinet roles
It was the first executive board meeting chaired by the party’s new leader, General Prawit. Members anticipated some new insight into the party’s tactics to deal with the cabinet reshuffle which more ambitious members see as an opportunity for advancement.
They were to be disappointed.
Some reports of the meeting suggested that the canny new leader and cabinet member, General Prawit, chose to focus his concerns instead on the finances of the party and not the government.
The new leader warned members that money was required at all levels of the organisation to fund itself and any potential election.
The deputy prime minister and party leader expressed concern at the extent of expenses involved in the running of the party and indicated that fundraising must become an urgent priority.
Political expert says plans by the Prime Minister to advance his own selection of non-party ministers may meet resistance from within Palang Pracharat
Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political expert with Thammasat University reported in the Bangkok Post, this weekend, suggested that the prime minister may have more difficulty this time in putting forward non-aligned experts or those who are not aligned with the ruling political party when formulating his next cabinet.
This does not sound like something the PM would accept too easily given his consistent pronouncements that the final decisions over the cabinet makeup are for him to make.
Recruitment underway from Government House with top players getting the call to public service
The recruitment drive by the Prime Minister appears to be in full swing from reports being received.
There are already extensive reports, this weekend, touting the Chairman of the Thai Bankers Association and Kasikorn Bank President, Preedee Daochai, as a possible contender for Finance Minister.
Other names have included Kan Trakulhoon, the former boss of Siam Cement Group (SCG) as well as the ex-chief of PTT, the oil and gas company, Pailin Chuchottaworn.
Minister of Finance critically important in the selection of the new Bank of Thailand boss
The appointment of the finance minister is critically important not only in terms of managing the country’s finances at this time.
One of the first jobs for the key economic minister will be to select a candidate for the post of Bank of Thailand governor from two candidates set to be recommended by a recruitment committee shortly.
Among these is Setthaput Suthiwart-Narueput, who is not only uniquely qualified for the job but is also a close advisor to the PM. Mr Setthaput is hotly tipped for the position.
Although the role is, by law, independent of government, it will be critical to guiding the country through a highly uncertain economic future at this time of crisis.
Economic team of an exceptionally high calibre required to head off the challenge from within Palang Pracharat and advance the economy
Thammasat’s political expert, Mr Somchai, observed this weekend that if General Prayut can produce an economic team of exceptionally high calibre, it may strengthen his hand in treating with those within the Palang Pracharat Party pushing for the political party’s right to nominate its candidates to its allocated number of seats in the cabinet.
Of course, it would also be a great boon to the economy and service to the Thai public.
A recent Super Poll survey in Thailand suggested that 81% of Thai people have a disdainful impression of politicians in general.
Top banker, 61-year-old Preedee Daochai, tipped for the role of Minister of Finance in reshuffle
On Friday, the prime minister acknowledged that the 61-year-old Kasikorn Bank executive, Mr Preedee Daochai, has been approached by him to play a role in government.
Even last week, General Prayut revealed that some of those he had approached were reluctant to become involved in public administration given the current political climate.
This week also, outgoing Bank of Thailand Governor, Veerathai Santiprabhob, revealed he had received a call from the government leader.
Mr Veerathai said he had thanked General Prayut for his confidence in him but explained that, for personal reasons, he could not commit to public service at this time.
General Prawit unveils three-man team at Palang Pracharat to reorganise the party at all levels
General Prawit, prior to his election as Palang Pracharat Party leader, had promised to heal divisions within the party and help unite it as a political force.
At this week’s meeting, he highlighted the roles of three key party members in a new campaign to generate funds and prepare it for an election.
These were Santi Promphat, currently deputy Minister of Finance who is known to covet the big job at his department. Captain Thamanat Prompow, deputy minister at the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperative who was passed over last year when the cabinet was formed after a controversy arose about his life before politics.
He was thought to be in line for a senior cabinet role and was even praised by the PM for his ability to get things done. Captain Thamanat at the time had been strongly tipped as the Minister of Labour.
Finally, the third-party members tasked by the party leader is Minister of Industry Suriya Jungrungreangkit who lost out in a long tussle last year over the energy ministry when the Prime Minister finally decided to appoint Sontirat Sontijirawong, the now-former energy minister and part of former Deputy PM Somkid Jatusripitak’s team. Mr Sontirat was one of those who resigned from the cabinet on Thursday.
It is also important to note that all three party deputy leaders have links with the Shinawatra governments of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. Two of these, Mr Santi and Mr Suriya, served as ministers with the third, Captain Thamanat, being a Pheu Thai MP until the 2014 coup.
Unique position of the Prime Minister as leader of government but not of the ruling party has left a power vacuum to be filled, this is now happening
The source of the conflict or power vacuum lies in the non-aligned nature of the team of ministers appointed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha last year. Three of the cabinet ministers who resigned from Palang Pracharat last week and a government official had worked with General Prayut for five years. They joined his team well before that party was founded to contest the 2019 General Election.
The unique position of the Thai prime minister as not being the leader of the ruling party in government is also contributing to the tension and will inevitably lead to pressure on the current party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, by factions in his party to exert influence on the prime minister.
Tuesday meeting by Palang Pracharat to draw up candidates for cabinet seats in a new reshuffle
It is being reported that the Palang Pracharat Party may put forward its candidates for seats at the cabinet under the government’s quota system.
This weekend, the Digital Economy and Society Minister, Buddhipongse Punnakanta, deputy leader of Palang Pracharat, said that the executive committee, when it meets on Tuesday, will discuss who to nominate for seats in the cabinet according to the cabinet’s quota.
The Prime Minister’s quota of appointments to his cabinet last year included those of the Palang Pracharat Party under a finely balanced deal brokered to form an unwieldy coalition with the Bhumjaithai Party, Democrat Party and other smaller political groups.
Factionalism and strife in all Thai political parties
It would be true to say that all of Thailand’s parties, including those in government and opposition, are currently riven with internal divisions and fractures too numerous and complex to explore.
It is coming at a time when Thailand’s economic crisis is deepening due to the coronavirus emergency.
The country is still in a State of Emergency with the opposition becoming increasingly less patient at the lack of accountability and transparency inherent in this.
It is being reported, over the weekend, that the prime minister is continuing in his approaches to respected business executives and financial experts in his efforts to put together the strongest possible economic team.
Prime Minister’s freedom to select cabinet members now challenged by forces within the ruling party
There is no doubt that a challenge, albeit indirect, to the prime minister is coming now from within the Palang Pracharat Party. The question is how to resolve the matter and the role to be played by General Prawit, his erstwhile ‘brother’ and colleague in government since the 2014 coup.
Whatever the approach, he must downplay and deflect it to ensure the government’s survival while also upholding his authority.
The tension lies in the fact that the party’s quota, when the government was formed last year, was lumped in with the Prime Minister’s quota of non-aligned ministers with whom he has always worked best with, being a non-political figure himself.
Some indications on General Prayut’s thinking
The Prime Minister gave us some indication at the end of the week as to his current thinking.
Firstly, he is now suggesting that changes to the cabinet lineup will be minimal and not a major change. This appears to be a shift from his earlier suggestion that all cabinet positions may be considered in terms of an opportunity to review the government’s performance.
This may help to narrow the focus and avoid a battle on too many fronts.
He has also indicated that he may take up the role as leader of the economic team, going forward, given the extent of the challenges now facing the country.
Prayut signals he will retain his dual role as Minister of Defence and Prime Minister – ‘Why not? It will remain the same’
He was also asked if there would be a change in the role of General Prawit who at the beginning of the Palang Pracharat Party leadership heave was linked to the position of Interior Minister, long-held by another of the three ‘brothers’ behind the 2014 coup, General Anupong Paojinda.
The Prime Minister made it clear that General Prawit will remain as deputy prime minister.
He also ruled out giving up his dual role as both Minister of Defence and Prime Minister. Asked if he would retain it. He replied brusquely: ‘Why not? It will remain the same.’
Political heave continues
These are some of the key questions in a quiet, low key, but so far, effective political heave from within the Palang Pracharat Party that initially targeted the party’s former leader, Uttama Savanayana, who resigned last week as Minister for Finance.
The big question, however, is where will it end?