[Analytics] Resignations fast-track Prayut’s cabinet reshuffle: How they covered it

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Photo: World Travel & Tourism Council / CC BY. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

The resignation of Prayut Chan-o-cha’s economic team will force Thailand’s Prime Minister into a cabinet reshuffle earlier than planned, ASEAN Today reported.

With Thailand’s economy struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha needs a new team to drive the country’s fiscal recovery after four cabinet members resigned from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) earlier this week.

Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana, Energy Minister Sonthirat Sontijirawong and Higher Education and Science Minister Suvit Maesincee all stepped down. As Masayuki Yudi in The Nikkei Asian Review noted, “Thailand’s long-standing economic policy team celebrated the first anniversary of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s cabinet with resignation letters instead of a birthday card.”

One year on from the general election, a reshuffle was expected in the coming months, but the latest developments will force Prayut into action quicker than he might have liked. “A cabinet reshuffle can take place any time from now on. I did not say I would definitely reshuffle in September,” said Prayut in July. “Changes will be made where necessary. Those who already work well will carry on,” he added.

Reuters reported that following the resignations, the prime minister confirmed he would now bring forward his new cabinet. “We have to reshuffle the cabinet so there won’t be a gap. It must be done as quickly as possible…no later than next month,” he said.

Were they pushed?

MenaFN and IANS reported Prayut “flatly denied” that the four men stood down due to a rift, playing down allegations that intra-party politics were responsible. However, a report in The Bangkok Post claimed Somkid and the others were “told by several factions in the PPRP to resign as their colleagues wanted their ministerial seats to be shared.”

Elsewhere, Busaba Sivasimboon, writing for Associated Press, reported that “there have been many reports that Somkid has been at odds with Prayut” in the wake of changes to internal leadership of the ruling party, which included replacing Uttama as PPRP leader with Prawit Wongsuwon.

The Bangkok Post gave credence to the idea that the four could set up their own party, adding: “It was also reported recently that Mr Somkid and his team planned to set up a new political party or group.” However, highlighting how much confusion surrounds the latest developments, the same paper had six days earlier reported how Uttama quashed that idea by saying he has “no plan to set up a new party.”

What happens next?

According to The Thai Examiner, Prayut has already begun sounding out people to form his new economic team. “I have approached some of the skilled economists, but they are still reluctant to enter into politics,” he said. Its report also added that he had met with Bank of Thailand representatives.

The Straits Times ran a report from Reuters which named Predee Daochai, currently President of the Thai Bankers’ Association, as the likely next finance minister with Thosaporn Sirisumphand reportedly in line to become the next deputy prime minister, replacing Somkid.

The reshuffle might, according to a poll carried out before the resignations, go down well with the public. A Vietnam Plus report revealed that a survey by Suan Dusit Rajabhat University saw two-thirds of its respondents say now is a good time for Prayut to reshuffle his team.

Rebuilding the economy remains priority number one

Nevertheless, whether Prayut’s reshuffle is imminent or not, the government’s priority remains to rebuild an economy shattered by COVID-19. The same Suan Dusit Rajabhat survey saw 8.75% of people agree that now is not the time for a reshuffle as the government must resolve other issues—such as the economy—first.

The Straits Times reported that political uncertainty is making investors nervous. Noting that whoever takes over must deal with an economy predicted to contract by 8.1% this year and mounting debt levels, it featured quotes by prominent economists.

“Elevated political uncertainty remains an important headwind to the economy, as it is an obstacle to long-term reform and large-scale investment,” said Charnon Boonnuch from Singaporean firm Nomura.

Prayut has not lost sight of the fact that rebuilding the economy is vital. “The key qualification I am looking for in the cabinet post is someone who can help reboot the Thai economy during and post-COVID-19 pandemic,” he told MenaFN. “The focus here is to rehabilitate and help the Thais who had been hit hard by the pandemic to stand up again.”

But, as a Bangkok Post op-ed underlined, the prime minister is under intense pressure to get these appointments right. “The public expectation does not give the premier much choice,” it read. “If he decides to change his economic team, the successor must be better than the old one.”

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