Look on the bright side

Look on the bright side

About Politics: The prospect of Bhumjaithai being axed over the Saksayam Chidchob affair could give its conservative allies a big boost v Recent scandals have set tongues wagging over the intentions of Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Capt Thamanat Prompow

Saksayam
Saksayam

Bhumjaithai, the party now touted as a leading defender of the conservative camp, is bracing for an uncertain future after key figure Saksayam Chidchob was found guilty of concealing assets and running a company -- via a proxy -- that won government construction contracts.

It is feared the Jan 17 ruling by the Constitutional Court could send the third largest party into a tailspin.

However, some analysts believe that even if Bhumjaithai meets its end as a result of the ruling against Mr Saksayam, it would not all be bad news for the conservative bloc.

In fact, it might even consolidate political conservatism, thanks to the law that leaves a 30-day window for members of a dissolved party to find a new home to defect to.

Bhumjaithai belongs to an era when many small and medium-sized parties preferred to keep their distance from big ones in a highly polarised political climate.

These parties neither showed, at least openly, their affiliation to any bloc in particular, nor offended any party as part of a strategy of befriending everyone in order to secure the chance of joining a coalition government, according to a source.

The strategy worked wonders for the likes of Bhumjaithai and the Chartthaipattana Party for quite a while. Both parties managed to successfully book a place in several administrations.

The source, however, noted a shift in their outlook when they appeared to opt for a right-leaning position by deciding to join the Prayut Chan-o-cha administrations and landed some A-list cabinet portfolios.

The shift became more evident in the lead-up to the general election in May last year.

The conservative alliance smelled imminent defeat at the hands of the Move Forward Party (MFP), with weekly opinion polls showing the party enjoying a rise in popularity across key election battlegrounds.

This included Bangkok, where the MFP ended up sweeping the board, having captured all but one seat in the capital.

Bhumjaithai and Chartthaipattana chose to side with the conservative bloc when they vowed before the election never to form a coalition with a party which champions the abolition of Section 112 of the Criminal Code -- the lese majeste law. This was an explicit reference to the MFP.

At that point, Pheu Thai was the only party viewed as being straddled between the liberal and conservative blocs.

In the election, the MFP emerged as the victor with the most seats, followed by Pheu Thai. However, their repeated attempts to forge a coalition of like-minded, pro-democracy parties failed, and Pheu Thai eventually jumped ship and forged a new administration made up of conservative-leaning parties led by Bhumjaithai.

The make-up of the new government places Pheu Thai as head of a so-called "neo-conservative" administration. However, the political source said it can be assumed Pheu Thai might not be genuinely happy being part of a conservative alliance. He feels the ruling party is wearing a right-wing badge because it is the only way it could lead a government following 10 years in opposition. The source said Bhumjaithai has earned wider trust from conservative supporters, although the Constitutional Court ruling on Jan 17 has left them anxious about the party's future.

Already, social activist Srisuwan Janya has petitioned the National Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate Mr Saksayam for serious ethical violations.

The move followed another Constitutional Court ruling on Wednesday to terminate Mr Saksayam's ministerial status as a result of the asset concealment scandal.

The ruling to terminate Mr Saksayam's ministerial status was absolute and is legally binding on parliament, the cabinet, independent organisations and government agencies according to Section 211 of the charter, the activist said.

The petition has fuelled fears that Bhumjaithai might be incriminated. It could be seen as being guilty by association, which could present grounds for dissolution.

But if the 70-MP party were to be dissolved, its lawmakers, particularly those who are constituency MPs, would be free to move to other parties, most likely in the conservative wing.

Bhumjaithai members would be less likely to defect to Pheu Thai since many of them competed fiercely against candidates of the ruling party in the election.

There is little chance of Pheu Thai members stepping aside and letting Bhumjaithai defectors stand in their constituencies in future polls. The defectors would be more inclined to be accepted by fellow conservative parties like United Thai Nation (UTN), which won 36 seats in the last poll. The two parties are not direct competitors in most constituencies they dominate.

If many Bhumjaithai defectors head to the UTN, the party founded by former premier and now privy councillor, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, could capture close to 100 seats in the next election and establish itself as a force to be reckoned with.

So what are you up to?

A sequence of events that unfolded over the past five months at the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives has shone a spotlight on its boss, Capt Thamanat Prompow, sparking curiosity as well as speculation over whether he is on a certain mission.

The Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) strongman has been no stranger to controversy since being named deputy agriculture minister in the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration after the 2019 general election.

Considered a political fixer whose skills were valued by former PPRP leader Prawit Wongsuwon, Capt Thamanat was forced to keep a low profile after he was kicked out of the cabinet for allegedly plotting to oust Gen Prayut.

The former deputy agriculture minister was later expelled from the PPRP only to return to its fold to contest the polls last year after Gen Prayut joined the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party.

Since becoming agriculture minister in September, the ministry has found itself embroiled in several scandals, which began with reports of dissatisfaction among his two deputies over the division of work and unclear responsibilities.

Capt Thamanat assumed control of 11 major departments while his two deputies, Chaiya Promma from the ruling Pheu Thai Party and Anucha Nakasai from the UTN, were each assigned four agencies.

Mr Chaiya reportedly complained that the allocation of work did not align with the policies his party promised to push during the election campaign.

"I'm afraid the minister will be overloaded. I'd love to help, but I'm not suggesting that I received not enough responsibilities," he was quoted as saying.

Capt Thamanat stood by his decision amid reports that a senior Pheu Thai figure had intervened to prevent the rift from widening.

As the new ministers were settling into their roles, a scandal surrounding position-buying within the Royal Irrigation Department emerged and prompted Capt Thamanat to launch an inquiry.

Several observers saw this development as Capt Thamanat "getting rid of" officials with ties to former agriculture minister Chalermchai Sri-on. But the PPRP secretary-general insisted the probe was not a purge but a necessary step to ensure transparency.

Then public attention was once again drawn to the investigation into the illegal imports of pork, which occurred from 2021 to 2023 when the country was facing a pork shortage. Last year, authorities confiscated 76,000 tonnes of smuggled pork found in 161 shipping containers.

The deeper authorities delved into the issue, the scope of the investigation became broader, and Capt Thamanat took decisive action by instructing the Department of Livestock Development, the Department of Fisheries and the Department of Agriculture to strengthen controls over imported illegal agricultural goods and work closely with the Department of Special Investigation (DSI).

In December, the spotlight shifted towards the Royal Rain-making and Agricultural Aviation Department, which was accused of irregularities in a project to procure two planes for rainmaking operations.

Serial petitioner Srisuwan Janya teamed up with Yoswaris "Jeng Dokchik" Chuklom in filing a complaint with the House committee monitoring budget spending to expose alleged large-scale irregularities within the Department of Rice. Earlier, the department faced a probe over a 15-billion-baht budget allocated to reduce rice production costs.

However, the scandal came with a twist when the pair and another individual, Phimnattha Chiraphutthiphak, were arrested in a sting operation for allegedly extorting money from Natthakit Khongthip, director-general of the Rice Department, in return for dropping their investigation.

The blaze at a four-storey ministry building on Ratchadamnoen Avenue last Saturday only aroused public curiosity and suspicion over whether it was truly an accident or a scandal brewing.

Police said it started in a kitchen on the second floor, completely destroying it. Flames spread quickly to a toilet, meeting room and the office of the adviser to Mr Chaiya.

Capt Thamanat was quick to pour cold water on rumours. He downplayed concerns that important documents -- notably those related to the investigation into the extortion gang allegedly led by Mr Srisuwan -- might have been damaged or lost in the fire.

He gave his assurances the documents were not in the adviser's office and that the incident had nothing to do with political foul play, adding he would have received word if that were the case.

Mr Chaiya said he examined the damage in his office and confirmed that no documents concerning ongoing corruption investigations were affected by the fire.

The ministry is an A-Grade one tasked with addressing farmers' issues, but it is often seen as a political tool to aid politicians and their parties in wooing support and expanding their support base.

While alleged irregularities are concerning enough, scandals should not be manipulated for political gain, especially if they involve the removal of officials to bolster one's own position, according to observers.

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