Maybe it’s time to move on
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Maybe it’s time to move on

ABOUT POLITICS: The removal of three Pheu Thai stalwarts from the cabinet has met with anger from one and a stony silence from the others | A couple of recent policy moves by the ruling party could put unity within the coalition under serious strain, observers say

Cholnan: Pride trampled on?
Cholnan: Pride trampled on?

The recent cabinet reshuffle, dubbed Srettha 1/1, has left three loyal veterans of the ruling Pheu Thai Party out in the cold.

Two chose to suffer the loss of face in silence, while the other refuses to take the humiliation lying down, according to an observer.

The stalwarts shown the door were Dr Cholnan Srikaew, who was replaced as public health minister; Puangpet Chunlaiad, who lost her post as Prime Minister’s Office minister; and Chaiya Promma, who was deputy agriculture minister.

Following the reshuffle, Mr Chaiya wasted no time firing a salvo at Pheu Thai and warning that it was ill-timed to let the axe fall on him, with the Move Forward Party (MFP) breathing down the party’s neck as far as dominance in national politics goes.

Mr Chaiya insisted no one else could better represent Pheu Thai’s northeastern voters in the cabinet.

Despite its unexpected defeat to the MFP at the last election in its stronghold in the North, Pheu Thai managed to beat the MFP with about 5.11 million votes in the Northeast. This success was owed to Pheu Thai’s constituency MPs, who prevented the MFP from wooing voters.

An MP for Nong Bua Lam Phu and one of Pheu Thai’s most recognised politicians in the Northeast, Mr Chaiya said it was constituency MPs like himself who worked hard to secure and maintain the stronghold in the Northeast. This was so list candidates could capitalise on the party’s popularity and become lawmakers.

Mr Chaiya warned that the MFP is giving Pheu Thai a run for its money in many elections, and the main opposition party is fast catching up in areas where it previously trailed.

The MFP, he noted, invested little in conventional campaign advertisements but won big in many constituencies in last year’s general election.

He said it was high time the ruling party looked inward and figured out how best to prepare and lay out fresh strategies for the next general election less than four years from now.

Sidelining hard-working and loyal MPs with tenacious attachment to their constituencies is not the right course of action to take, he said.

“Don’t forget that Pheu Thai has been given a chance by Isan [northeastern] voters many times already.

“And the question now is what does the party have to offer in return for their steadfast support?” he said.

While Mr Chaiya vented his frustration, a message made the rounds on social media bemoaning how Dr Cholnan’s removal from the cabinet had trampled upon his pride.

The message was posted on the Facebook page of Mor Cholnan FC Mai Mee Drama (Dr Cholnan’s Fan Club, No Drama) on April 28, the day after the latest cabinet appointments took effect.

The page, understood to be privately operated by Dr Cholnan’s long-time supporters, uploaded a profile image depicting a Dr Cholnan picture being stomped on. Next to the photo was a caption saying the former public health minister had been ditched and discarded while other people shamelessly scrambled for power.

It was shared widely, although access to the Facebook page’s comment box was restricted.

At the same time, some political commentators were forthright about Dr Cholnan’s ouster.

They said Dr Cholnan never exhibited leadership strength despite having led the Pheu Thai Party, which explains why he had been excluded.

Political analyst and well-known broadcaster Jittakorn Bussaba said on the Naewna online talk programme that even though Dr Cholnan had been handed the Pheu Thai leadership, he found himself constantly in the shadow of Paetongtarn “Ung Ing” Shinawatra, head of Pheu Thai Family, a position thought to have been created exclusively for her.

The youngest daughter of paroled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who is believed to still wield considerable influence in Pheu Thai, has now succeeded Dr Cholnan as Pheu Thai leader.

The party, according to Mr Jittakorn, showed little regard for Dr Cholnan as its leader. This was illustrated by the fact that the party did not even nominate him among the three prime ministerial candidates in the last election.

The three are now Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, Ms Paetongtarn, and Chaikasem Nitisiri, who held no major party post at the time of his nomination.

During the election campaign, Ms Paetongtarn attended rallies and spoke on stage “with her head held high and her back straight”, whereas Dr Cholnan was standing beside her, with his head bent forward and his hands clasped in front of him.

The commentator said Dr Cholnan should consider quitting Pheu Thai if he feels the party is not treating him right and defect to the Bhumjaithai Party, which is looking to grow stronger in Nan, where Dr Cholnan has been elected multiple times.

Dr Cholnan, he suggests, should go where he might be appreciated.

Waiting for cracks to form

Political observers are now watching for signs of a split within the Pheu Thai-led coalition following recent moves by the ruling party which have the potential to strain relations with two coalition partners.

Anutin: Wary of weed re-listing

One is Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s call for the change in the legal status of cannabis. The premier’s stance is not favourable to the Bhumjaithai Party which successfully pushed for cannabis decriminalisation during the previous administration.

The plant was delisted in 2022 as a Category 5 narcotic, except extracts containing more than 0.2% THC, the compound that creates the psychoactive effect.

But decriminalisation without comprehensive legislation to control and regulate its use triggered a public backlash and concerns over its availability to children, misuse and possible long-term impacts.

Bhumjaithai sponsored a cannabis control bill, which was shot down in its second reading in parliament, with Pheu Thai and the Democrat Party arguing that the proposed regulations were too lax.

Currently, cannabis use for medical and research purposes is made possible by public health regulations as well as the medicinal herb law, which does not adequately cover all cannabis uses.

During the campaign ahead of last year’s election, Pheu Thai announced it did not support cannabis liberalisation while pledging to combat illicit drug abuse.

Eight months after taking office, Mr Srettha ordered the Ministry of Public Health to reclassify cannabis as a narcotic at a May 8 meeting to discuss the problem of narcotics, saying the decision was in the best interests of the people.

Among those present at the meeting were Interior Minister and Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul, Public Health Minister Somsak Thepsutin and Justice Minister Tawee Sodsong.

Mr Somsak could not wait to get it done. “[PM Srettha Thavisin] has given the ministry until the end of this year to reclassify cannabis as a narcotic,” he said. “The sooner, the better,” said Mr Somsak.

Mr Anutin, who served as public health minister in the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration, was apparently cautious about Bhumjaithai’s stance on the reclassification issue.

All he could say at the meeting was that delisting cannabis as a narcotic was approved by the Narcotics Control Board, and he would accept the outcome if the board decided to change the plant’s legal status.

Political watchers view Mr Srettha’s move on cannabis as damaging to the Bhumjaithai Party, especially considering the prime minister’s “people’s interest” remark.

This could be seen as implying that the coalition partner’s cannabis policy was ill-thought-out and driven by personal interests, they noted.

Olarn Thinbangtieo, a political science lecturer at Burapha University, told the Bangkok Post that Pheu Thai would win praise from the public if it put cannabis back on the narcotics list.

“The ruling party will score some points with this policy after having its popularity fall steadily over the past several months,” he said.

Mr Srettha’s actions may also cause friction with the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party which saw one of its ministers quit the cabinet just days after the reshuffle, according to Mr Olarn.

He was referring to Krisada Chinavicharana, who quit as deputy finance minister over the division of work set by newly appointed Finance Minister Pichai Chunhavajira. Mr Krisada was assigned to oversee the Public Debt Management Office.

In his resignation letter seen by the media, Mr Krisada said he stepped down partly because he and Mr Pichai had a different work philosophy and that Mr Pichai failed to treat him with respect when they worked together.

The division of responsibilities was widely seen as a ruling party move to reduce the role of the deputy minister in the Finance Ministry, a core agency in implementing the digital wallet scheme, as he was from a different party.

Mr Srettha’s refusal to allocate funds from the government’s central budget reserves to alleviate hardship caused by high energy prices is also likely to add to the tension, especially after Energy Minister and UTN leader Pirapan Salirathavibhaga asked for the relief measure.

The prime minister has ordered that the state Oil Fuel Fund be used to shore up oil prices and if it is depleted, the central budget reserves would be allocated to replenish it. As of May 5, the Oil Fuel Fund reported it was 109 billion baht in the red, causing legal complications for Mr Pirapan.

Because of the ruling party’s moves, there is a risk that Bhumjathai and UTN could face a backlash from their own supporters. Mr Olarn said it is possible the two coalition parties may withhold their support for the digital wallet scheme in retaliation against Pheu Thai.

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