PM takes page from Thaksin's playbook
text size

PM takes page from Thaksin's playbook

Members of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin's first cabinet wait for a photo shoot. Dr Cholnan Srikaew, left, is not included in Mr Srettha's second cabinet. Chanat Katanyu
Members of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin's first cabinet wait for a photo shoot. Dr Cholnan Srikaew, left, is not included in Mr Srettha's second cabinet. Chanat Katanyu

The cabinet reshuffle may trigger speculation about cracks in the Pheu Thai Party, owing to the departure of prominent figures like Public Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara. The shift indicates that ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra is taking the reins of the party.

Thaksin is believed to have had final say in the shakeup. Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and Deputy Prime Minister Phumtham Wechayachai sought a meeting with him shortly before the list was submitted to the palace.

The latest change suggests that Thaksin's success in reconsolidating his power in the party, gearing it up for the next elections. He still trusts -- and wants to make use of -- Suriya Jungrungreangkit, who once led the Wang Buaban faction, which was active in the now-dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT), in the next political battle.

Thaksin also is determined to rely on Bhumjaithai as an ally in the next elections. He gives the party liberty to decide on a reshuffle. This explains why some ministers with a mediocre performance -- like Permpoon Chidchob, education minister; Chada Thaiset, deputy interior minister; and Supamas Issarapakdi, minister of higher education -- have still been able to keep their seats.

Yet all eyes are on Pichai Chunhavajira, who is appointed finance minister. Mr Pichai, former chair of the Securities Exchange of Thailand, has a solid track record in the economic field. He was one of seven witnesses for ex-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra when she faced a probe by the National Anti-Corruption Commission in a rice-pledging scheme in 2014.

Mr Pichai has three deputies, Krisada Chinavicharana, Julapun Amornvivat and Paopoom Rojanasakul, all from the Pheu Thai Party. With such a big team, it's clear that Pheu Thai attaches importance to economic affairs. Their priority is to see the contentious 10,000 baht digital handout get through.

The reshuffle bonus goes to Transport Minister Suriya, who also gets a deputy prime minister position. Transport, a major ministry with a swath of megaprojects, is eyed by all parties. When Mr Srettha formed his first cabinet, Anutin Charnvirakul, Bhumjaithai leader, unsuccessfully negotiated for the top place at the ministry.

Mr Suriya is a leader of the Wang Buaban faction, which was the TRT's most powerful faction, comprising heavyweights like Yaowapa Wongsawat, Thaksin's sister who has politicians under her sway in the northern region. The second biggest was the Wang Namyen faction under Sanoh Thienthong, who controlled the northeastern region.

Also gaining from the shakeup is Somsak Thepsutin, who is shifted to the Public Health Ministry, replacing Dr Cholnan, whose fate drew public sympathy. Dr Cholnan has acted as the party's "good boy". There is no doubt the doctor-turned-politician made sacrifices for the party. Yet, Dr Cholnan was kicked out, largely because when compared to Mr Somsak and Mr Suriya, he is a "lone wolf" in the party, without any politicians under his control.

Not to mention Mr Somsak, who while serving as justice minister in the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration revised regulations regarding out-of-jail conditions, which benefited Thaksin. Some observers regarded the move as preparing for Thaksin's return.

Mr Somsak resigned from the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and made a comeback at Pheu Thai before last year's election. He is the first minister to mention that Thaksin was eligible for parole and what he said eventually became real.

The reshuffle is seen to have put Mr Suriya and Mr Somsak in a better position to reinforce their strongholds in the two regions, which were largely taken over by the Move Forward Party and the PPRP under Capt Thamanat Prompao in the previous elections.

Having said that, Mr Somsak and Mr Suriya will have to take care of party members' expenses in their respective areas.

Initially, only four politicians from the PPRP followed them to Pheu Thai, but in a short time, the duo formed a new camp to draw more politicians from the military-leaning party. Standing ready to give them a hand is Manaporn Charoensri, a Nakhon Phanom MP and deputy transport minister who is widely accepted in parliament. The politician is the secretary of the Wang Buaban camp for the northeast.

There is speculation that Capt Thamanat -- who currently serves as secretary general of PPRP -- is to reunite with Thaksin, returning to Pheu Thai. Such anticipation derived from the fact that Capt Thamanat and Co received absolute control of the agriculture ministry in the shakeup. It is a rare case as the ministry of agriculture usually has top officials from various coalition parties.

The change at the agriculture ministry is said to attest to the looming downfall of Gen Prawit Wongsuwon and his PPRP. The ex-junta "big brother" said he had reserved the deputy ministerial position for agriculture for Anant Polamnuay, a PPRP MP for Kamphaeng Phet, but it was Atthakorn Sirilatthayakorn, a Chachoengsao MP with close ties to Capt Thamanat, who got the cake.

It will come as no surprise if Capt Thamanat runs in the next election under the Pheu Thai banner. In fact, his return to Pheu Thai was widely rumoured during the May 14 election, but his deal with the party was delayed due to a technicality. This time, he will herd some PPPR politicians to his old place. With firm a base in Phayao, Capt Thamanat would likely take a key role in Pheu Thai's struggle to recapture the northern region.

Moreover, the reshuffle speaks volumes about Thaksin's manoeuvring style, which Mr Srettha has inherited. During Thai Rak Thai's time, Thaksin made a rejig almost every six months to allow all core leaders to take turns in accessing cabinet positions. The key figures with some MPs under their control would get Thaksin's attention.

Such a manoeuvre is evident in Mr Srettha's shakeup: all the losers, in addition to Dr Cholnan, namely Chaiya Promma and Anucha Nakasai, both deputy agriculture ministers, and Puangpet Chunlaiad, PM's Office Minister who oversaw Bangkok in the previous elections, were "lone wolves" without politicians under their control. After all, Thaksin may be of the view that the four all had claimed the reward: seven months in cabinet.

Talking about rewards, it's also Thaksin's style to return the favour to those who work for him. In this case, it's Pichit who got the PM's Office Minister's position. Pichit was Thaksin's long-time lawyer who headed the legal team defending Thaksin and his ex-wife Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra in the notorious Ratchadaphisek land purchase case.

During a task, Pichit "dropped" a bag containing 2 million baht at the Supreme Court in an attempt to bribe court officers in 2008. He was given six months in prison for contempt of court.

During Yingluck's time, the lawyer, who was then a Pheu Thai list MP, was in charge of screening the bills for cabinet consideration, including the so-called blanket amnesty bill that ignited public uproar. The move resulted in massive protests against the Pheu Thai-led government, which ended in a political stalemate and a coup by the National Council for Peace and Order.

As the country was run by the junta, Pichit still led the Shinawatra family's legal team, defending Yingluck in the rice pledging scheme case. With what he did for the family, Pichit deserved a reward, and his name had initially appeared in the cabinet list when Mr Srettha formed his first government last August.

But as the opposition rolled its sleeves, preparing to ask the charter court to look into his eligibility, with regard to his being jailed, Pichit voluntarily stepped back. Now political activists have challenged his appointment.

Yet there is a surprise in the shakeup, with Sutin Klungsang remaining in the defence position despite earlier reports that he would get the axe and Mr Srettha would take over the post while appointing Gen Natthapol Nakpanich as his deputy.

Mr Srettha eventually made no change and dropped the latter -- a close aide to Gen Prayut and an acquaintance of Gen Apirat Kongsompong -- for not wanting to give an impression that Pheu Thai has allied with the old powers for fear that such an alliance would give a reason for the opposition to attack.

At a quick look, Pheu Thai may settle the benefits for all the factions in the party. Yet the loss of Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, who abruptly resigned from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after losing his deputy prime minister position, is a setback.

Worse, the new cabinet lineup, containing a minister with a dubious background like Pichit, would make it hard for the party to restore public support.

To put it bluntly, with the "Pichit factor", the Srettha government should brace for fierce challenges ahead.

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor at Bangkok Post.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

Do you like the content of this article?