Govt bruised but not undone by debate
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Govt bruised but not undone by debate

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin talks with a minister during the general debate held at parliament on Friday. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin talks with a minister during the general debate held at parliament on Friday. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

No sooner had the two-day general debate come to an end on Thursday than there emerged speculation about a possible cabinet reshuffle, which seems inevitable given the dire need for the Srettha Thavisin government to shore up its popularity.

The debate, while unable to bring the government to its knees, has inflicted political bruises on the struggling administration. The opposition Move Forward Party (MFP), in particular, exposed several flaws of the Srettha government as well as its inability to implement several of its flagship policies, such as lowering energy prices, reforming the police, boosting the economy and stamping out narcotics, to name but a few.

Meanwhile, the public's confidence keeps diminishing.

The MFP deserves credit for its strong performance in the debate, its first challenge to this government since it took office in August. This came after the MFP failed in its bid to form an administration, as the junta-leaning Senate stood in its way.

The MFP convincingly pointed to the government's sluggishness and lack of sincerity in tackling several problems over the past seven months.

Chaithawat Tulathon, leader of the MFP, lashed out at Mr Srettha for just "performing day-to-day work" rather than thinking of the bigger picture. There have also been accusations that his administration appears to cater to business giants, allowing them to dominate the economy.

More importantly, Mr Chaithawat accused the government, including the previous Prayut Chan-o-cha administration, of pursuing legal warfare against its opponents while backpedalling on its pledge to rewrite the charter.

The opposition leader questioned the PM's extensive travel to 14 countries and one special economy since taking the job. Mr Srettha claims to bring in more investment, worth 558 billion baht, from international firms to the country, but little has so far materialised.

The partial minimum daily wage increase to 400 baht in 10 provinces is risible as inflation keeps on soaring. And the much-touted 10,000-baht digital wallet scheme remains uncertain with several changes to its conditions.

Thai society is still haunted by scandals, especially the notorious confrontation of Royal Thai Police (RTP) chief Pol Gen Torsak Sukvimol and his deputy Surachate "Big Joke" Hakparn, with both pointing the finger at the other. They have been transferred to inactive posts, but the public expects little as their war of words keeps getting uglier.

Police reform is just a pipe dream. So is military reform.

Mr Srettha and several ministers tried in vain to convince the public that the opposition has been dwelling too much on the "same old stories" and deployed so-called "devalue rhetoric" for the sake of political power plays.

But Mr Srettha and his ministers forgot one thing: they are unable to come clean, especially when it is related to their handling of ex-con former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's out-of-jail stay upon his return to Thailand.

Critics have also questioned Pheu Thai's casino and entertainment complex initiatives.

The prime minister as well as Paetongtarn Shinawatra have scored poorly in several opinion polls, compared to the MFP and Pita Limjaroenrat, its chief adviser.

Given the MFP's impressive performance during the debate, the duo's popularity could decline further.

With several political mishaps, the Srettha government apparently feels the urge to make a cabinet reshuffle, aiming to strengthen its economic team. If successful, the party believes it could make a comeback.

It is rumoured that Mr Srettha may give up his finance minister position to Pichai Chunhavachira, who is his economic adviser.

Mr Pichai is a former big boss of the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET). Deputy Finance Minister Krisda Chinavicharana may lose his job to Paopoom Rojanasakul -- architect of the digital wallet scheme.

Pheu Thai is reportedly looking for a replacement at the top of the Tourism and Sports Ministry while seeking to streamline the work of ministers under its quota at the agriculture and interior ministries.

Pheu Thai needs a few more legal experts in the cabinet, and bonuses may go to Deputy Pheu Thai leader Chusak Sirinil and Pichit Chuenban, an adviser to Mr Srettha Thavisin who was Thaksin's former lawyer.

But Mr Srettha is also the problem. While earning Thaksin's trust, he has few, if any, supporters inside the Pheu Thai Party. He could hardly be expected to erase the public perception that he is a puppet prime minister for the Shinawatra clan.

Despite a leadership shortage, Mr Srettha is still being backed by Thaksin -- at least for a while, or until Ms Paetongtarn is already the government leader.

From now on, Thaksin's role in the party will be more clear and palpable. After Chiang Mai, the former premier promised Pheu Thai members that he would visit electorates in Udon Thani, the party's capital for the Northeast and Korat. Certain as the sun, Thaksin did not spend time at home taking care of his grandchildren as he had promised.

Thaksin must want to clear Mr Srettha from the party's affairs, sparing him from the headaches derived from party politics, competition among political camps, and cabinet seat allocation, for instance.

But it's uncertain whether the ex-premier could restore the party's popularity, especially because "Thaksin favour" has faded and politics has changed, with the MFP now firmly in the game.

Pheu Thai must realise it is no longer competing with the Democrats or junta-leaning parties but rather the MFP, which is riding the wave of pro-reform politics -- the kind that stripped Pheu Thai of victory last May.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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