Resignations a reality check for Prayut
The resignation of Uttama Savanayana from the finance portfolio and the team under Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak from the party and the cabinet is a sign of cracks appearing in the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).
Mr Uttama and the team, namely Sontirat Sontijirawong, Suvit Maesincee and Kobsak Pootrakul, had a key role in formulating economic policy for Prayut Chan-o-cha's administration for more than five years but their resignation became inevitable in the wake of pressure from influential factions.
This is political reality for the army chief-turned-politician. The days when he had absolute control in the military regime are gone. Now he is leading a democratic, elected government, comprising several factions. The fact that may be too hard for him to swallow is this: in building up his political base and prolonging his regime's period in power, he had "borrowed" support from those politicians. Now that his government is marking its first year in office, it's time for him to pay back the "political debts" to those factions.
The resignation of the "superkids" paves the way for a cabinet reshuffle. The forthcoming change has been likened to the saying "changing the horse amid the warfare". We are witnessing politicians fighting one another to get cabinet seats amid public dismay.
The reshuffle, the first of his administration since the 2019 election, is a crucial test for Gen Prayut. Will he bend to others' demands, or will he confront them and prove to the public that they he still deserves their faith.
It was previously expected that Gen Prayut would resist this very situation since he always told the media he found political pressure unacceptable and the Sam Mitr (Three Allies) group should stop bargaining. But eventually he will have to accommodate them, allowing the "four super kids" to go. It's reported that Gen Prayut sent a personal message to Mr Somkid, signalling the need for a cabinet rejig that would require him to find four replacements.
It is expected that it will be a major reshuffle involving 10 positions. At this very moment, when the government is facing the Covid-19 crisis, it needs experienced and skilful people in its economic team in order to maintain public confidence, tackle the impact of the lockdown and reboot the economy.
The prime minister said he had approached some outsiders for places in the new economic team. Among them is Preedee Daochai, chairman of the Thai Bankers' Association, who is rumoured to be in line to become finance minister. Mr Preedee is already an adviser to the administration, having been involved in preparing the government's 1.9-trillion-baht loan package and as a member of the economic team in the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration.
Also said to be a candidate in media reports is Pailin Chuchottaworn, the former deputy transport minister. He has been tipped to take the energy portfolio.
The prime minister's decisions have received a positive response from the business sector, which wants him to hasten the rejig, clearing the scene from any ambiguity. The tricky part, however, is the energy ministry because Suriya Jungrungreangkit of the key PPRP faction Sam Mitr fought hard for the post when the government was formed last year, only to see it go to the party's secretary-general, Sonthirat Sontijirawong.
The energy ministry is so attractive because it is considered a "treasure trove" for politicians. The minister will have a say on several billion-baht projects, be it power plants, petroleum concessions, etc. The top position provides a chance to connect with major investors and the energy ministry also oversees key state enterprises like the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, which has an enormous property portfolio worth one trillion baht and accumulated profits of 280 billion baht.
However, the prime minister remains adamant that the quota for the energy ministry belongs to him, not the party, and that he may appoint anyone to the position.
Yet, observers noted that if Gen Prayut refused to compromise with Sam Mitr by increasing its quotas, the faction may play hardball and withdraw its support for the 2021 budget. If that happens, the prime minister will not only lose face but also his grip on power. By Thai tradition, any administration defeated in such a crucial bill has to step down, and normally, there is a snap election.
If the prime minister hopes to satisfy the faction, he may hand them one or two more cabinet seats, including the ministry of higher education, science, research and innovation, or swap cabinet seats. There are reports that he may give back the authority to ovesee the Royal Thai Police to Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, the current PPRP leader. He dismissed speculation that he might assign Gen Prawit to be interior minister and move Gen Anupong to defence but it remains clear the three "brothers in arms" maintain power over Sam Mitr.
The prime minister should take back all the economic portfolios -- commerce, agriculture, tourism and transport -- which are scattered among different parties under his overall control. That would enable him to form a strong economic team that can work together in the same direction. As it stands now, each party has the freedom to drive its own policies.
No matter how smart "outsiders" are, they can't be making their best contributions if they cannot work as a team.
In reshuffling his cabinet, Gen Prayut should take the opportunity to fire all his inefficient ministers and those with a shady past.
More importantly, the prime minister has made a commitment to make great changes, having told the nation on June 17 that his administration would launch plans to adapt to the "new normal". He said there was no time to be lost, that people expected a better life, and politicians needed to stop wasting time over non-constructive matters, including dirty games that held the country back. He thus encouraged people to help in his "Thais Together Build Thailand" plan.
The PM's promises could end up being empty rhetoric, with the country trapped in old politics, PPRP members scrambling for a piece of the cabinet cake, ignoring people's hardship amid the pandemic. The "new normal" politics that he proudly touted would then become just a distant dream.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.