Friday, November 2, 2012

The holy triangle: The party, Cabinet, the red shirts

The new Yingluck Cabinet, the third in slightly over one year, doesn’t promise a big shakeup in terms of delivering an elevated performance.

The fact that 22 portfolios have been reshuffled doesn’t suggest a “comprehensive” improvement. It simply means the game of musical chairs has to be played all over again so that political debts could be settled and the “quota system” gets implemented more vigorously.

Premier Yingluck Shinawatra’s statement that there was no interference from her elder brother Thaksin (“I did it myself.”) was slightly much persuasive this time because her “inner circle” was retained, most notably Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Kittirat na Ranong and the surprise appointment of a professional physician Dr Pradit Sindhavanarong as the new public health minister.

Her decision to keep Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom probably is the most “risk” choice since that means she has denied herself the political wriggling room to get off the highly controversial, expensive and unsalvageable paddy mortgage scheme. The Opposition’s threat to submit a censure motion against the government next month will undoubtedly zero in on this “weakest link” of the Yingluck government.

Whether he gave any specific instructions to her sister or not, Thaksin’s grip on the new Cabinet remains strong. For one thing, his two most trusted men in the current Cabinet – Communications Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan and his deputy, Chatchart Sithipant – have been promoted to more powerful posts.

Charupong, who is also Pheu Thai Party’s secretary-general, has been moved to the influential interior portfolio while Chatchart has been elevated to the post as communications minister. Nobody should be surprised if Charupong is made the party’s leader to replace Yongyuth Vichaidit in the next party’s elections.

Foreign Minister Surapong Tovijakchaikul, another trusted aide of Thaksin, not only retains his post but has also been offered an extra portfolio as deputy premier, presumably to boost his clout in domestic politics while expanding his role in the international scene.

The return of at least three prominent figures in the “Group of 111” to the Cabinet posts after their five-year political ban was lifted recently underscores Thaksin’s unmistakable hold on the Yingluck Cabinet.

Pongsak Raktapongpaisal, as the energy minister, Pongthep Thepkanchana in the education minister’s seat and Sermsak Pongpanich as his deputy all point to the consolidation of Thaksin’s power base.

Yingluck was said to have compiled the new Cabinet list very much in a rush, confining her consultations to a small circle of advisers and aides – for fear of “creating undesirable ripple effects” among those unhappy with the new line-up.

Not everything is plain sailing, though. The fact that red-shirt core leader Jatuporn Prompan has not made the list could well be a potential time-bomb. It remains unclear whether it’s Thaksin’s own decision or the strong opposition from Premier Yingluck that finally put Jatuporn’s name out of the new line-up. But some red-shirt core leaders, especially Thida Tavornseth, have already gone on the record as saying that they felt betrayed by Jatuporn’s being left out of the new Cabinet.

It was never a secret that Thaksin had one way or the other given the impression that Jatuporn would be given a Cabinet portfolio in this new reshuffle. Jatuporn himself did little to hide his disappointment. “I am ready to swallow blood,” he declared. In other words, he is ready to suffer the pain of rejection, but not in silence or alone.

Thaksin would have to do a lot of patching up with some of the red-shirt leaders to prevent them rocking the boat. Relations between certain red-shirt factions with the Yingluck Cabinet and the mainstream Pheu Thai Party leadership will become more tricky if cracks caused by the Cabinet shakeup get worse in the new power play.

One of the long-held beliefs in Thai politics is that very few governments are toppled by outside political force. Most political downfalls come from within. Whether or not Thaksin “interfered” in the drawing up of the new Cabinet list, he might be forced to “intervene” in the looming conflict between the party, the government and its own political front.

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