A wolf in sheep's clothing?
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A wolf in sheep's clothing?

ABOUT POLITICS: Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt has won admirers with his message of unity, but some critics feel this hides an ulterior motive v The PM is expected to win his budget-bill battle but the upcoming censure debate should put loyalties to the test

Chadchart: Has to prove his worth
Chadchart: Has to prove his worth

Newly elected Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt has taken the capital by storm with the avalanche of support he received at the May 22 poll.

He rode to victory on voters' expectations that he could straighten out urban management and make Bangkok liveable again.

Mr Chadchart struck a chord with voters and after he was elected governor, he got off on the right foot by attempting a monumental task -- uniting people and political actors.

He has repeated his message of unity, saying he will not be able to lead City Hall unless he has people from across the political and social divide on board. That has become his post-election mantra which, if it materialises, could firmly reinforce Mr Chadchart's chances as a national leader, according to a political observer.

The observer said Mr Chadchart has a long way to go to prove his worth despite having served as transport minister in the Pheu Thai Party-led administration right up to the 2014 coup.

Mr Chadchart was among the ministers reportedly blindfolded and whisked off to an undisclosed location immediately after the military takeover.

After the coup dust had settled, Mr Chadchart, who has a solid background as former chief executive of the SET-listed developer Quality Houses Plc (QH), kept out of the political limelight for many years.

But that changed during the last few years because of his keen interest in city affairs and tours of urban areas to keep tabs on problems facing city residents.

With some initial reluctance to declare he was running for City Hall's top seat, he finally made it public that he was vying for governor as an independent, well before any other candidate stepped forward, which meant he had more time to study Bangkok's problems, woo voters and win their support.

The observer said Mr Chadchart entered the governor contest well-prepared, judging from the 214 initiatives he has listed for implementation during his four-year term.

However, Mr Chadchart's many initiatives were somehow overshadowed by the call he has reiterated for unity among people and political parties. He has vowed to be a governor for all and insisted that being non-partisan pays dividends since he enjoys total freedom and flexibility to carry out his policies without anyone dictating him.

He said he represented all 31 Bangkok governor candidates and said some of the policies advocated by his rivals during the election campaign would be looked at and possibly combined into his action plan for Bangkok.

The observer said many found Mr Chadchart's unity and inclusiveness pledge as a breath of fresh air as he could lead the way in healing political divisions between people.

Others, however, took Mr Chadchart's words with a pinch of salt. They were unsure if Mr Chadchart had buried the hatchet with his "opponents", including the coup makers and their supporters, and was ready to move past being ousted in a military revolt eight years ago which cost him his cabinet job.

Some critics are convinced Mr Chadchart may be hiding his desire for vengeance. The critics appear to be lying low and waiting for Mr Chadchart to reveal his true colours and they think he may have provided a glimpse during a friendly meeting with the anti-government Ratsadon group.

During a tour of the city prior to the Election Commission certifying his election victory on Tuesday, Mr Chadchart arrived at a gathering of Ratsadon members where he spoke to the crowd.

Mr Chadchart was asked by Ratsadon co-leader Panusaya "Rung" Sitthijirawattanakul what he thought about revoking Section 112 of the Criminal Code, more commonly known as the lese majeste law. Mr Chadchart said the law should not be an instrument for driving social divisions and that abolishing the law outright would be akin to swinging to one extreme.

But he added he had been enduring the consequences of the coup for eight years. Any move the group makes must be strategic but it must not be driven by impulse or anger. The new governor advised them to be patient.

At one point, he told the Ratsadon members: "Revenge is best served cold." However, he maintained he was speaking in a general terms and not specific to the context of the Ratsadon movement.

Dodging political bullets

Parliament returned from a break on May 22 to intense speculation about the fate of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Would the thin-majority coalition government move in step to secure the passage of the national budget so that the premier could stay on to fight a planned censure debate?

Prayut: Confident budget bill will pass

The beginning of June until August is considered a crucial time for the premier who has to defend the budget bill, handle the planned censure debate and face a court ruling on his eight-year term limit.

His first challenge came this week with the first reading of the budget bill for the 2023 fiscal year worth 3.18 trillion baht.

The expenditure bill is the most crucial piece of finance-related legislation of this government. In the event that the draft law does not sail through, Gen Prayut has to choose between resigning or dissolving the House to pave the way for snap elections.

Ahead of the three-day national spending debate, the opposition announced that it would vote against the bill and instantly raising the political temperature.

Gen Prayut's concerns about the budget bill debate were voiced at the cabinet meeting on Monday. But what was bothering him was apparently not the vote at the end of the debate, but a lack of quorum that could happen on any day.

His concern was justified considering that several House meetings have come to an abrupt end over the past three years due to a lack of quorum. The opposition camp was accused of using this tactic to undermine the government's credibility.

During the cabinet meeting on Monday, Gen Prayut made sure that coalition parties were aware of how a quorum check could be used as a device to derail the bill. He made it clear that he expected all government MPs to be there and maintain the quorum.

His concern was addressed by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who is also leader of the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), as he gave strong assurances that the budget bill would get the nod from the House and there was nothing to worry about with his party rallying behind the legislation.

"Rest assured. I'm confident that the bill will sail through and the cabinet will also survive the no-confidence motion. We have the same goal of working for the country until the government's term ends [in March next year]," Gen Prawit was quoted as telling the meeting.

The PPRP leader's remark was said to have drawn applause and a cheerful response from Gen Prayut who replied: "May it happen that way."

Despite having a thin majority, most observers are not convinced that the government would be defeated in the readings of the national budget as both the Bhumjaithai and the Democrat parties, two major coalition partners, are still on board.

In March this year, Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul was quoted as saying that the government could consolidate the support of 260 MPs to help the government see off the planned no-confidence debate.

When pressed hard by the media, he denied saying as such and insisted he could only guarantee the undivided backing of his own party. The medium-sized party started out with 51 MPs after the 2019 general election and has attracted many defectors with 62 MPs now in its ranks as of March this year.

But analysts believe the Bhumjaithai Party has more MPs under its wing than the official count shows. These so-called cobras or renegade MPs are understood to be in the opposition camp and the number is likely to match the number of MPs of small coalition parties siding with the ruling PPRP.

With or without the faction of 18 MPs in the Setthakij Thai Party, the government should have the majority needed to pass the budget bill, according to political observers.

Setthakij Thai is seen as a risk factor that could spell the end of the government after party heavyweight Capt Thamanat Prompow and 14 executives resigned en masse recently and automatically removed Gen Wit Devahastin na Ayudhya from party leadership.

Capt Thamanat's move is viewed as a bid to take complete control of the party, but he is not looking to sink the budget bill, according to political observers. The former deputy agriculture minister is likely to wait until the censure debate before flexing his muscles and mounting a challenge against the premier.

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