Deputy choices under scrutiny

Deputy choices under scrutiny

Agriculture Ministry a 'political vehicle'

The Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry has been thrust into the spotlight as it is perceived to by critics be "cluttered" with ministers from four coalition parties, each jostling for control of its mechanisms to push for their election pledges.

The ministry is considered a "Class A" ministry, as it has a large role in handling the agricultural sector as well as the country's farmers, which makes it appealing for politicians who want to win widespread voter support.

The ministry has been allocated a huge budget of more than 108.5 billion baht for the 2019 fiscal year, ranking seventh among other key ministries.

The Education Ministry received the highest budget with 489.8 billion baht, followed by the Interior Ministry with 373.5 billion baht.

The Agriculture Ministry will have three deputies -- the highest among all ministries in the government.

Chalermchai Sri-on, the secretary-general of the Democrat Party, has been endorsed as the next Agricultural and Cooperatives Minister.

Meanwhile, Mr Chalermchai's three deputies are Capt Thammanat Prompao of the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP); Mananya Thaiset of the Bhumjaithai Party; and Prapat Pothasuthon of the Chartthaipattana Party.

As a comparison, the Finance Ministry under PPRP's Uttama Savanayana, which ranks third in terms of total budget allocations with 242.8 billion baht for the 2019 fiscal year, has only one deputy.

The newly-appointed deputy premier Somkid Jatusripitak said on Thursday that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made the right decision to put four ministers at the helm of the Agriculture Ministry because the ministry is responsible for looking after farmers across the country.

A political observer said the wrangling over seats in the Agriculture Ministry is motivated by politics, as farmers form the key voter base of almost every party in Thailand.

"Because it receives a big budget, the ministry can be used as a political tool," the source said.

The source added that Capt Thammanat was appointed as a deputy agriculture minister to act as a counterbalance to prevent the minister from the Democrat Party from taking total control of the ministry.

A source at the Agriculture Ministry said that Mr Chalermchai will oversee four main agencies -- the Royal Irrigation Department, the Land Development Department, the Agricultural Land Reform Office and the Department of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation.

Next week, Mr Chalermchai will discuss the division of tasks with his three deputies, the source said.

The source added the first priority for the minister and his three deputies is to reshuffle ministry personnel, by bringing in people they trust to carry out their election pledges.

The source went on to say that a total of nine high-ranking officials at the Agriculture Ministry will retire at the end of September.

In light of this, the four ministers will have to push for officials affiliated with them to fill the important vacancies by Aug 1, the source said, adding the Chartthaipattana Party has more information regarding ministerial personnel than other parties because the party -- in its previous incarnation, the Chart Thai Party -- controlled the ministry for a long time.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, noted that all four ministers at the Agriculture Ministry are political figures who wield considerable clout in their respective regions.

Gen Prayut's decision to put them together in the same ministry is a tactic to deal with farmers who may mount protests over falling crop prices in the future. "Each ministers have their own negotiation channels to defuse tensions, the source said.

Capt Thammanat, who was once considered an influential figure but has since become a target of criticism over his public image problem, his main strength is his ability to coordinate and clear the air with conflicting parties in any disputes likely to arise in the portfolio.

Stithorn Thananithichot, the acting director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy under King Prajadhipok Institute, said that while naming four ministers to be in charge of the ministry is a "normal practice", Gen Prayut will have to reshuffle his cabinet often to ensure all coalition partners get their share of cabinet seats.

Separately, House Speaker Chuan Leekpai said on Thursday parliament will convene on July 24 to allow the new government to spell out its policy manifesto, as required by the constitution before the ministers assume their duties.

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