The resignation of several ministers from the Thai cabinet has forced the hand of the prime minister, who will have to announce a cabinet reshuffle as the economy totters in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ultimately, the reshuffle will be more a change in personalities than policy direction.
23 July 2020
The resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Chatusripitak and four key members of his economic team has made it necessary for Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha to undertake a cabinet reshuffle earlier than he had planned.
Somkid is widely known as the architect of the Thai government’s economic policies. In addition to Somkid, Finance Minister Uttama Savanayanna, Energy Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Suvit Maesincee and Deputy Secretary-General to the Prime Minister Kobsak Pootrakul submitted their resignations last Thursday.
Uttama, Sontirat, Suvit and Kobsak are dyed in the same cloth. The quartet are technocrats who became politicians, and are part of Somkid’s inner circle of advisors. They worked closely with him to push through many important economic policy initiatives in the first Prayut government of 2014-2019. They also took the lead, with Somkid working behind the scenes, to establish the Phalang Pracharat Party as a vehicle to support Prayut’s return to power after the March 2019 general elections.
A power struggle within the party eventually led to the removal of Uttama as party leader and Sontirat as its secretary-general. Their opponents claimed that the duo had remained aloof – and inaccessible – to the party’s serried ranks. The campaign to oust Uttama and Sontirat was also targeted at undermining the political standing of Somkid in the government.
It was not a surprise that the quartet decided to leave the Phalang Pracharat Party – the writing on the wall had become clear. But their departure was ill-timed. It is believed that the prime minister initially wanted to wait until the passage of the government’s budget bill in September before he reshuffles his cabinet. Apparently, Prayut was not informed in advance of the resignation of Somkid’s team from the party and is peeved because the move had the effect of forcing his hand.
Compounding Prayut’s dilemma is the fact that many qualified and competent outsiders are reluctant to join the cabinet in the face of the daunting economic challenges and the Byzantine nature of the country’s politics.
Prayut has now announced that he will finalise the new cabinet line-up by August. In fact, he hinted this week that the reshuffle list is almost settled. The prime minister can certainly not afford to go too long without an economic team in place, as the Thai economy heads towards a contraction of more than 8 per cent due to the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. Prayut has said that the reshuffle will involve only what is necessary to fill vacant cabinet posts, perhaps with some minor shifts in ministerial portfolios. Furthermore, the other major parties in the coalition government – the Democrat and Bhumjaithai Parties – have made it manifestly known that there must not be any changes affecting their cabinet ministers.
It is understood that the appointments that Prayut sees as his prerogative are those of deputy prime minister for economic affairs and finance minister. These two positions are important for the confidence of the business and financial community at home and abroad. The post of energy minister is also important because of the huge investments and mega-projects that the ministry oversees.
Still, even if the reshuffle is relatively small in scale, mainly involving the Phalang Pracharat party, it is doubtful that Prayut will have the free hand in selecting ministers that he had enjoyed before. The Palang Pracharat Party, on its part, has already publicly staked out its claims. Most notably, Suriya Juangroongruankit, an important power broker in the party, has made no secret of his strong desire to be Energy Minister.
Compounding Prayut’s dilemma is the fact that many qualified and competent outsiders are reluctant to join the cabinet in the face of the daunting economic challenges and the Byzantine nature of the country’s politics. So far, the names of a few well-known technocrats have been mentioned. One of them is former Governor of the Bank of Thailand Prasarn Trairatvorakul, who was approached for the post of deputy prime minister. He declined to accept it, citing family reasons.
The leading candidate for finance minister is Predee Daochai, the chief executive officer of Kasikorn Bank and the chairman of the Thai Bankers Association. After initially expressing his reluctance, he has reportedly accepted the post. It could be that Predee will also have to double as deputy prime minister for economic affairs in order to make another cabinet post available for the Phalang Pracharat party. If not, it is possible that Pailin Chuchottaworn, the former chief executive officer of PTT, Thailand’s biggest petroleum company, could be tapped as deputy prime minster. It was reported that Pailin was a strong candidate for energy minister, but Suriya Juangroongruankit is bent on taking that position with the backing of the Phalang Pracharat party.
Although the economy is the priority, the coming cabinet reshuffle will ultimately be driven by political considerations. It will be a change of personalities rather than policy direction. But even if the prime minister is able to recruit the best minds, the implementation of economic policies will continue to be hampered by the fact that the different parties, with different political agendas, will oversee the various economic ministries. In the ruling rainbow coalition, the cabinet will unavoidably be the product of mixing and matching. The challenge confronting Prime Minister Prayut is making sure that there is less of a mismatch in the mixing.
Sihasak Phuangketkeow, former Permanent Secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
ISEAS Commentary — 2020/101
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