Reshuffle cements Srettha's grip
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Reshuffle cements Srettha's grip

After eight months at the helm, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin staged a much-anticipated cabinet reshuffle with unexpected drama and unsurprising consolidation. As head of a coalition government, Mr Srettha appears more "prime ministerial" as the reshuffle has strengthened his hand to implement the ruling Pheu Thai Party's flagship policies.

With other coalition partners satisfied with their portfolio divisions, political stability is on track, while the prime minister appears secure in his position. Although this government is the second-best outcome of the May 2023 election -- as the biggest winner Move Forward party has been systematically sidelined -- Thailand desperately needs political stability and incremental policy effectiveness to find its way ahead again.

To be sure, earlier rumours of Mr Srettha being replaced by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the 37-year-old youngest daughter of Pheu Thai founder and ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have subsided. Perceptions of Mr Thaksin, who returned to Thailand last August after 15 years in exile, being a puppet master with Mr Srettha as a stage proxy have lost ground. Nevertheless the reshuffle ended up in a whirl of controversy centring on the foreign affairs portfolio.

Erstwhile Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-nukara abruptly resigned within hours after the new cabinet line-up was published in the Royal Gazette. A Pheu Thai policy hand for decades, Mr Parnpree apparently felt slighted for having his deputy premiership withdrawn, ending up solely as foreign minister. But such a view devalues the foreign minister post. In most countries, foreign ministers do not hold concurrent positions as deputy premiers.

Foreign affairs is a substantial domain with immense responsibility. Mr Parnpree has done a lot and could have achieved much more leading the foreign ministry on its own merits. The practice of doubling as deputy prime minister and foreign minister is a recent phenomenon, most visibly under Don Pramudwinai when he occupied both positions under the military-backed government of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2014-23. It was a military-dominated decade when Thailand lost international credibility and when its foreign minister needed an additional cabinet post to get attention and engage abroad.

Mr Parnpree's early foreign policy performance from shifting course on Myanmar to dealing with the Gaza crisis involving Thai workers has earned widespread praise. Thailand's foreign policy interests should have been larger than his petty personal resentment for not being deputy prime minister at the same time. To argue that holding both posts was necessary to hold leverage in conducting foreign policy and coordinating with domestic bureaucratic agencies does not hold water. If capable and effective, as Mr Parnpree had been, a foreign minister can achieve what is needed without having to double as deputy prime minister.

In the event, Mr Parnpree's departure is a setback for the government and for Thailand. Mr Srettha may need to play a role in foreign policy more actively behind newly appointed Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa, a veteran diplomat who had been posted to Canberra, Wellington, and Ottawa prior to retirement. Thai foreign policy will need to resume momentum but its directions of taking a regional lead on handling the Myanmar crisis, rebalancing among the great powers, and moving ahead with economic growth are here to stay.

For the rest of the reshuffle, Pheu Thai moved around its cabinet quota, with a handful who stand out. Mr Srettha, who has doubled as finance minister, brought in Pichai Chunhavajira as deputy prime minister and new finance minister. Pichai, 75, has been Srettha's economic adviser from the outset. An old hand in Thailand's big business networks, Mr Pichai has known both Mr Srettha and Mr Thaksin for years. That he has taken charge of the finance portfolio enables the prime minister to oversee government functions more closely, especially the rollout of Pheu Thai's signature 500 billion baht digital wallet scheme --10,000 baht each for 50 million Thais over 16 years of age -- later this year to boost consumption and shore up economic growth.

In addition, Mr Srettha added three deputy ministers of finance who are seen as policy professionals. Having four ministers supervising the Finance Ministry is unprecedented. It indicates Mr Srettha's fiscal policy priorities and pro-growth determination. Mr Srettha installed three new ministers attached to the Prime Minister's Office, partly as payback for their contributions as Pheu Thai cadres. A couple of party patronage bosses were also rewarded, as Suriya Juangroongruangkit became a deputy prime minister in addition to transport minister and Somsak Thepsutin took over the public healthy portfolio. As a result, Pheu Thai's reshuffle was either to reward party contributors and loyalists or to consolidate Mr Srettha's premiership to drive and facilitate broader policy objectives.

With the opposition Move Forward party poised to be dissolved after mid-May, when its petition period with the Constitutional Court ends, the governing coalition led by Mr Srettha and underpinned by Pheu Thai is expected to soldier on indefinitely. Mr Srettha's strategy and Pheu Thai's direction under Mr Thaksin's influence appear intent on adopting some of Move Forward's reform proposals, such as cutting back on military prerogatives, increasing wages, promoting domestic consumption, attracting foreign investment, and assuming a bigger role in regional and international affairs, while staying clear of monarchy reforms.

A revamp of the constitution, for example, will go ahead, exempting the foremost sections on the role and authority of the monarchy. Pheu Thai is banking on a partial reform agenda over the next few years in office to get the economy moving again and indirectly benefit from Move Forward's disbandment in an overall effort to regain electoral ground that was lost in the last election. Whether this plan will work depends on how Move Forward will regroup and retain its overdue reform agenda.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, is professor at the Faculty of Political Science and a a senior fellow at its Institute of Security and International Studies.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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