Government parties signal cabinet reshuffle

Signs of a cabinet reshuffle show an attempt by the establishment to solve disputes within the government coalition. Facing a crisis of legitimacy, they also want to buy time. 

  Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha paid a visit to Phra Nakhon Khiri historical park, Phetchaburi Province in March 2020.
Source: Thaigov.go.th

There have been several developments in mainstream politics recently. On June 28, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan became the leader of Phalang Pracharat Party.  The party has installed 27 new board members after the old ones resigned in early June. This is the party that had engineered the nomination of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader, as Prime Minister after the questionable election in 2019.

Meanwhile, parties in the government coalition are making moves to prepare for a possible cabinet reshuffle. Anutin Charnvirakul, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health, said that the government has not signalled anything yet. If so, his Bhumjaithai Party will have time to think about it.

Chatumongol Sonakul, the Minister of Labour, resigned as leader of the Action Coalition of Thailand (ACT) party. He will remain the Minister of Labour, but his resignation from the party automatically dissolved the current party board. A party meeting proposed Anek Laothamatas, a former board member, as the next Minister of Labour when the government launches a cabinet reshuffle. Chatumongol said that people in the party disagreed with him, so he resigned. However, he held no grudges and did not feel forced to resign.

Mongkolkit Suksintharanon, leader of the minor Thai Civilized Party, has been selected by 7 fellow "micro-parties" to represent them in the new cabinet. Even if the micro-parties do not get a seat, they will stick with the government coalition. Mongkolkit said he is interested in being a part of the new economic team. Recently, he said in parliament that he would like to see legalization of casinos in Thailand for foreigners and 6 percent of the Thai population in order to increase government income and restore the economy after the COVID-19 outbreak.

Despite signals from the government coalition, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha said that it was absurd to anticipate a cabinet reshuffle now. Prayut said the government was focusing on the 3.3 trillion baht budget for 2021, which won approval from parliament a few days ago. His remarks came after an unconfirmed report about the government's invitation to its coalition partners to submit ministerial candidates on 7-9 July.

There are two main explanations for recent developments: internal tensions within the government coalition and the crisis of legitimacy.

Let us start with the first one. Prayut’s allies consist of 19 political parties. Cobbled together to form a parliamentary majority, each has its own interests and motives. Allocating cabinet seats in this setting is difficult as it is easy for coalition partners to be dissatisfied with the cabinet list. For example, some Democrat Party MPs are dissatisfied with Thamanat Prompow, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, after it was exposed that he had served a jail term in Australia for drug trafficking. He was also accused of having a connection with a person responsible for massive mask-hoarding during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Phalang Pracharat, the leading party in the coalition, itself contains at least 7 factions. Since last year, there has been a major dispute between the Three Friends (Sam Mit) and Four Children (Si Khuman) factions. The conflict began when Sontirat Sontijirawong, then Secretary-General of the Phalang Pracharat Party, was chosen after the election to be Minister of Energy, a cabinet seat which had been promised to Suriya Juangroongruangkit of the Three Friends group. Even though Suriya was given the Ministry of Industry, Phalang Pracharat MPs went on to campaign against Sontirat claiming that he was incompetent as Secretary-General, and thus a "threat" to the party's stability.

Many believe that incompetence is not the real issue. It is rather that Sontirat is part of the Four Children faction which also includes Uttama Savanayana, Kobsak Pootrakool, and Suvit Maesincee. This group of technocrats served as ministers in Prayut’s unelected government before the election last year and continued to work in Phalang Pracharat’s leadership until the recent resignations. Some of them also currently serve as cabinet members. But without representation in the party's executive board, it is doubtful how long they can remain in the cabinet.

The pressure point is that they joined the cabinet without having been elected. This channel was made possible by the current constitution. It gave rise to the Three Friends faction which believes that cabinet seats should be allocated according to the number of MPs of each political group. Led by Suriya Juangroongruangkit and Somsak Thepsuthin, these former Thaksin MPs came together to back Prayut Chan-o-cha as Prime Minister last year and believe that they should have a bigger quota in the cabinet.

The complication is that Somkid Jatusripitak, the one who brought the Four Children together, is also one of the Three Friends. The conflict between the two factions puts Somkid in a no-win situation. He has also been widely criticized over his leadership of the government’s economic team. Thai economy was not ding very well even before the Covid-19 outbreak and many in government circles anticipate a new economic team to revive the economy.

With Gen Prawit as Phalang Pracharat’s "charismatic" leader, the dispute inside Phalang Pracharat was reportedly solved with the ultimate defeat of the Four Children faction. The list of new executive board members of the Prawit-led party has no members from the Four Children group at all. Even so, we will have to wait and see if there is a cabinet reshuffle and if the Three Friends faction will have more members in the new cabinet and the new economic team.

These developments point to some progress and some challenges for democratization in Thailand. First, the defeat of the Four Children faction means that Thai democracy has slightly improved. Elected politicians are exerting their influence against unelected technocrats. It can be argued that these politicians are part of the Thai oligarchy and that the Thai electoral system is flawed. But the fact that they were elected at all means that their appointment to the cabinet would still be better than a complete absence of democratic control.

However, this reflects a larger problem. Thai politics is still dominated by the idea that might is right. When Phalang Pracharat had internal conflict, they resorted to a father figure to give the final say. In this case, it was Gen Prawit Wongsuwan. This approach is the same as when politics was highly polarized and the establishment resorted to the military coup of 2014. Conflicts were not resolved, but suppressed. Even though many propose that Phalang Pracharat should dissolve factions and unite as one, the possibility is unlikely because the stick alone is not enough.

It is truism to say that these internal disputes and dealings do not benefit the Thai people at all. The conflicts are over the cabinet seats, not public policies. The underlying reason is that Thai politics is still largely driven by pragmatism. The absence of any political ideology means that political parties lack a coherent rationale for public policies. Most political parties campaign on the same nice promises with differences only in emphasis. This makes it more difficult for ordinary citizens to question and participate. Thai people are expected to receive good things from the government but do not have to know about their policies and how they should be implemented.

The second reason for the signals of a possible cabinet reshuffle is that the establishment is trying to buy time with the general public. They know too well that they are facing a crisis of legitimacy. Time after time they have crushed the opposition through manipulation of supposedly independent agencies and people are getting fed up. Thanks to the Covid-19 crisis, the student protests have largely been deterred, but the government needs to seize this opportunity to prolong their stay in power.

Prayut Chan-o-cha announced in mid-June that he was inviting all sectors to “Unite the Thais, Build the Nation (รวมไทยสร้างชาติ)” His campaign aims to lay a new framework for how the government should run after the Covid-19 outbreak. By setting up channels for citizens to comment on and evaluate the government’s work, he believes that the government will function better in a “new normal” society and “creative politics” will benefit all Thais.

His welcoming gestures have to be juxtaposed with the fact that Thai activists are still under threat of prosecution and enforced disappearance. How Prayut is viewed is for the people to decide. If they are okay with Prayut, tension will not build and the cabinet may remain unchanged. If they express a desire for change, Prayut will launch a cabinet reshuffle to buy time, depending on his assessment of the situation. In both cases, Thais still have a lot of work to do to improve democracy in Thailand.