The cabinet's composition and direction

The cabinet's composition and direction

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha leads his new cabinet during a photo session at Government House. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha leads his new cabinet during a photo session at Government House. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

With Thailand's new post-election cabinet members poised to to start work after being sworn in, it is instructive to look at how they have been assembled based on patron-client ties and vested interests. Because it contains unsavoury individuals with shady pasts, this cabinet is unlikely to last long but the political longevity of its leader, former junta chairman and still Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, may endure longer than many would expect from such a fragile, fractious coalition government.

The new cabinet consists of four main columns. First, there are holdovers from the junta interregnum over the past five years. The continuing junta team features Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, Wissanu Krea-ngam and Somkid Jatusripitak, all three as deputy premiers. Gen Prawit presumably will oversee security-related portfolios, while Mr Wissanu will remain as the Prayut government's all-weather legal and constitutional trouble-shooter and fixer. Mr Somkid is to supervise economy-related ministries, doing more or less the same thing he did before, despite public perceptions of the economy being in the doldrums.

Linked to Mr Somkid from the coup era are newly ensconced Energy Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong and Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana. Initially touted as technocrats and policy professionals, both later became fully political as nominal leaders of the junta-backed Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), which is the core of the coalition government. In addition, Mr Uttama was earlier involved in a dubious Krung Thai Bank loan deal but somehow his case has not been pursued as vigorously as others. In the same technocrat-cum-politician mould is Higher Education and Science Minister Suvit Maecinsee.

The cabinet leftovers who have been allowed to continue also include Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, who earlier had an alleged share-holding conflict of interest that did not stick. Mr Don's long tenure as Thailand's front man in international diplomacy and regional affairs has coincided with the country's plummeting image and standing. To be fair, Thailand's international image has sunk to new lows over the past 14 years as its domestic conflict and polarisation set in. But Mr Don has been foreign minister the longest during this period and yet Thailand's international standing is in no better shape.

Gen Anupong Paojinda is the quietest junta man and cabinet member, even though he has been the head of the Interior Ministry, highly coveted because it is a large bureaucracy which governs provinces nationwide. Gen Anupong also continues as interior minister, as part of his job will be to maintain internal security. This cabinet shows that the junta triumvirate -- Gen Prayut, Gen Prawit and Gen Anupong -- remains rock-solid.

The second component comes from old junta allies who hail from the street protest movement in 2013-14 under the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). These street protests under the so-called "shutdown Bangkok" campaign succeeded in neutering the elected government at the time and paving the way for the May 2014 putsch.

Among the PDRC protest leaders who have entered cabinet are Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan and Digital Economy Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta. The old junta allies under the PDRC also formed the Action Coalition for Thailand Party to contest the election in March. However, the ACT won just one constituency seat, even though the PDRC was said to represent the vast majority of Thai people during the demonstrations in 2013-14. With four party-list seats, the ACT's five MPs have landed MR Chatu Mongkol Sonakul the post of labour minister.

The third cabinet flank derives from the junta's new allies. These are seasoned, patronage-driven upcountry MPs who were poached and enticed to join the PPRP. Some of them have bowed to junta coercion through the threat of legal action for past misdeeds. Many in this group used to work under political parties and governments aligned with the ousted and self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra.

New junta allies are highlighted by Industry Minister Suriya Jungroongruangkit, Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin and Culture Minister Ittipol Kunplome. All three and their upcountry associates delivered a host of constituency seats for the PPRP. These established politicians, however, typically move party loyalty with the tides of political change.

The last crucial lot that joined the Prayut-led coalition are the Democrat and Bhumjaithai parties. The Democrats went through two splits, first when the ACT was formed and later when the party joined the junta-backed government. Some went with the ACT, while others resigned in rejection of junta perpetuation and manipulation of power.

Democrat ministers are led by party leader and now Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanavisit, who doubles as deputy prime minister, and Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives Minister Chalermchai Sri-on. The Bhumjaithai cabinet quota are led by Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who also serves as deputy prime minister, and Transport Minister Saksiam Chidchob, who is brother of Newin Chidchob, the patronage boss in the Northeast based in Buri Ram province. Those who want to see how the Transport Ministry will be managed can look back to 2008-2011 when the Chidchobs were in charge of it.

Both the Democrat and Bhumjaithai parties have been out of power for nearly a decade, and are evidently keen to have another go in cabinet. Their earlier pledges against junta rule have been discarded. The Democrats' newest rationalisation of a cabinet role is premised on constitutional amendments. But if the constitution is left untouched, the Democrats probably will not resign as a result.

With the junta-appointed Senate's backing, Prime Minister Prayut can count on 250 of 750 parliamentarians to keep voting him back into the top office by a simple majority of 376. All he would need each time in addition to the PPRP's 116 lower house members is a handful of coalition allies here and there. While the resulting coalition government may be weak and fragile, Gen Prayut has shown all intentions of hanging on to power indefinitely.

Perhaps parliamentary politics is not the place to look for clues about Gen Prayut's will to stay in power. Doubling as defence minister in place of Gen Prawit this time, Gen Prayut will have to oversee the relocation of key military units out of Bangkok to the provinces, including the 2nd Armoured Cavalry and the Anti-Aircraft Artillery divisions, while the 1st and 11th regiments of the 1st Infantry Division will no longer be under the army high command's purview. Perhaps these kinds of military movements and manoeuvres may underpin Gen Prayut's intent to hang on at all costs to oversee the army's future, not to mention his own.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.

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