As the end of the government's term approaches, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha appears not to be busy winding things up. Instead, he keeps adding new aides to his team at the Thai Koo Fah building.
All the new members of the PM's secretariat office are heavyweights from his Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party, or United Thai Nation (UTN). Gen Prayut joined the new party on Jan 9 with aspirations to become the party's candidate for the premiership, should it perform well in the upcoming election.
Yesterday, he named Sayam Bangkultham, deputy secretary-general of the UTN, and Newin Chorchaitip, member of the party's strategy committee, as senior officials at the PM's office. The two are vouched for by Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, who is the PM's secretary-general and a key figure of a breakaway faction from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).
Before these two new faces, Gen Prayut appointed quite a few individuals to high positions at the secretariat office. Apart from Mr Pirapan, he named Trairong Suwannakhiri as another of his advisers. On Jan 9, he appointed three other advisers, namely Chatchawal Kong-udom, also known as "Chat Taopoon," former Democrat MP Chumpol Kanchana, and Seksakol Atthawong. Mr Seksakol, aka "Rambo" and a former red-shirt leader, used to serve as the PM's office's vice minister before he was forced to resign last year over a debt scandal that remains unresolved.
So far, Gen Prayut has named 24 out of 30 positions in the PM's office. It's speculated that he will fill the remaining six with UTN members ahead of the election. Unless Gen Prayut opts for a House dissolution, his government's last day is March 23.
Several appointments have drawn ire from the opposition and critics since such a blatant practice breaches political etiquette as it allows Gen Prayut to unfairly take advantage of other parties before the election.
His aides have defended him, saying such appointments late in the administration are not unusual. Yet observers argue that it is unprecedented. In a bid to downplay the matter, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krue-ngam insisted that the latest two, while named as advisers to the PM, have no salary nor fringe benefits.
But such claims remain doubtful.
For many, this is a last-ditch effort by Gen Prayut to optimise his chance of maintaining the upper hand over his rivals. There are concerns that these "advisers" may interfere in the work of state officials to the UTN's advantage, particularly in boosting the party's image pre-election.
Mr Newin is set to contest the next poll as a Bangkok candidate for UTN, Mr Chatchawal will not run in the election, but his son will. Gen Prayut is expected to spend big time supporting his populist policies before he leaves office, raising concerns of vested interest.
When going on field trips, Gen Prayut is accompanied by these appointees, and he tends to introduce them as UTN members in what is seen as pre-poll PR stunts, as opposed to government work. So, where are the lines drawn that divide government duties and politicking? The Election Commission should look into this matter and step in to ensure that no party abuses the rules for their own political gain.