Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Chaos at the House

It' s a shameful scene in Parliament. It's around 6.00 pm as I was watching the heated debate on whether to move the "reconciliation bill" forward for a vote, all hell broke loose.

The ruling Pheu Thai was intent on getting it over with as soon as possible. Oppositon Democrats were arguing for a stay, claiming that rushing the bill through would be wrong since several clauses there could be unconstitutional. They charged that the bill was aimed at helping former premier Thaksin only.

House Speaker Somsak Kiartsuranont was caught in a dilemma as both sides threw angry words, including rude swearing terms, at one another. Amidst jeers and noisy protests from the opposition MPs, the speaker decided to exercise his prerogative by ruling in favour of the majority. Some opposition MPs went up to the Speaker's Throne, followed by government MPs who apparently were trying to protect him. Chaos reined. Initial reports that one femal MP had slapped another lady MP were later denied. Parliament security officials had to be called in.

It didn't really matter whether the bill was finally put forward for debate. The chaotic scene tells the whole story of reconciliation, Thai style.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Don't expect a war at Bank of Thailand

With Dr Virabongsa Ramangkura having been named the new chairman of the board of directors of the Bank of Thailand, some observers have predicted a clash of the titans at the central bank.

Central Bank Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul, considered by some long-standing analysts as Dr Virabongsa’s nemesis, has publicly tried to calm anxious souls.

“I don’t think we should be overly concerned about my working relations with the new chairman. The central bank has its own structure and working system. Anything that we do are under public scrutiny anyway. Personally, I don’t feel any pressure at all,” he told reporters.

If the protagonist doesn’t feel any pressure, why should outsiders be concerned about a confrontation between the new chairman and the governor?

My own take is that these two gentlemen will gradually learn to adapt to each other’s style, both intellectually and emotionally. They are both highly qualified and experienced. They know that they are being closely watched for any possible conflicts. And they will desperately to avoid clashes that could undermine their respective credibility and public standing.

In other words, contrary to all speculation to the contrary, I am confident that they will get along famously, for no other reason than the fact that they each have to show the board of directors that they are professionals in their own fields and that they aren’t at the beck and call of politicians or any vested interest groups.

The points of disagreement between Dr Virabongsa and Dr Prasarn in the past weren’t really substantial enough to “break the camel’s back” so to say. And Finance Minister Kittirat na Ranong has more or less deployed his diplomatic finesse to smooth things over between the two.

“Some people have expressed the concern that Dr Virabongsa might dig into the country’s reserves at the central bank to spend it on infrastructure construction. Don’t forget that Dr Virabongsa is one of the devout followers of Luang Ta Mahabua (the late senior monk who had mobilized donations of gold to put up part of the reserves). So, I am confident nothing of that sort would happen. Let me give you the assurance that the government has no policy to use the central bank’s reserves to set up a sovereign wealth fund as had been reported earlier,” he said.

Of course, Dr Virabongsa had, in his capacity as an economist, proposed that the abundant reserves be spent on “more economically productive purpose.” And Dr Prasarn, as the central bank chief, subsequently warned against such a move. But their public exchange of divergent views shouldn’t be taken as something cast in stone.

And once both of them work in the same board of directors, sharing responsibility and the same degree of accountability to the public, only professional judgment would be their guiding principle.

Besides, the bank’s major decisions aren’t made by just the chairman and the governor. They are the joint responsibility of the whole board and committees tasked with their respective roles to deliberate and rule on relevant policy issues.

Dr Virabongsa, more importantly, will have to deflate suggestions from certain quarters that he has been assigned to the central bank’s chairmanship to serve the ruling Pheu Thai Party. That’s why he will bend over backwards to demonstrate his own independence of mind and head. The fact that he has only about 18 months before the mandatory retirement age of 70 will also be a factor that will limit any attempt for him to “rock the boat” there.

Dr Prasarn, on the other hand, will have to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that he isn’t running the central bank as a “state within a state”—as is often charged by critics. That means the governor will show with his actions that he is a team player and the central bank operates as a professional institution where all shades of opinion over major monetary policies are taken into full consideration without fear, bias or favour.

Politicians trying to put a wedge between the two will find the task highly complex. The two are amply capable of putting up a running battle. But I know they won’t. The risk to their personal reputation is simply too high.

Besides, they aren’t that stupid

Friday, May 11, 2012

Return of 111 tests Yingluck's political management skill

Last week, reporters asked Premier Yingluck Shinawatra whether a Cabinet reshuffle, her second since taking office, was forthcoming. She smiled and said:

“The weather is really very hot, isn’t it?”

Two days later, the same group of reporters, having heard specific names being mentioned as possible candidates for a new Cabinet line-up, asked her the same question. The premier sported another smile and said:

“Let’s do some work first…”

That probably convinced the scribes that something was really afoot. And when Noppadol Pattana, former Premier Thaksin’s personal adviser, came out to warn politicians not to “start wearing jogging shoes” (euphemism for lobbying) to seek new posts in the new Cabinet, he was more or less confirming that things weren’t picking up pace.

And when he insisted that the premier and not her brother was calling the shots in whatever changes that were forthcoming to the council of ministers, Noppadol was in effect saying that there might be something to the speculation. The fact that he denied the story was tantamount to confirming it. At least, that’s what the reporters were led to think.

We all have to sympathize with Premier Yingluck. She has tried very hard to be on her own – to insist that she is really in charge. This is her Cabinet and she has every right to defend her choice of who should stay and who should be replaced.

For her, the 111 episode was something that had happened long before she was born politically. The dozen or so leading politicians in the group belonged to a period before she had any idea about her unexpected political role that was thrust upon her.

No doubt, Yingluck has shown respect for the 111 characters but she obviously isn’t quite sure what to make of them now that they are “reborn” and are poised to play some leading roles in the government. She has yet to get used to Pheu Thai MPs and ministers talking over her head to her elder brother directly. But sooner or later, she will come to the realization that whatever the public perception about her real authority, she will eventually have to answer to the people.

In other words, she can’t let the perception of “Team A” from the 111 Group to replace her “Team C.” That would be politically disastrous for both teams.

Publicly, the core members of the “111 Club” (former executives of Thai Rak Thai Party that was dissolved by a court order for election fraud) have said they would do nothing to rock the Yingluck government’s boat. In fact, they have set a date when they would all be meeting the prime minister to display their loyalty and support immediately after the May 30 dateline when the five-year ban expires.

But like all of the rest of the country, Premier Yingluck must have read reports in the press about how some of the leading 111 figures will replace the present Cabinet members as, among others, deputy prime minister, interior minister and others. One particular name has been cited in particular: Suwat Lippatapanlop, the unofficial head of Chat Pattana party, who, according to the unconfirmed reports published in some vernacular papers, may become Pheu Thai Party’s secretary general while his brother may take over the industry portfolio, known to be under Suwat’s “quota” all along.

One never knows how Premier Yingluck communicates with her roving brother. But even if she has held consultation with the former premier over the return of the 111 leaders to the Cabinet, it would be very unlikely that she could approve of the “leaks” of who’s going to be in what position in the new line-up.

But if all these movements have gone on behind her back, the premier would certainly feel ill at ease. The issue, after all, isn’t who has the right to choose the new ministers. The real question is whatever the composition of the new “Yingluck 3” Cabinet, it’s the premier herself who has to run the show and to make sure that the old and the new, the loyal and the effective, the mavericks and the work horses can blend in as a “Yingluck team” and not an elite Cabinet within a Cabinet.

Now, you know why Premier Yingluck was relieved that the scorching heat, if nothing else, at least helped her fend off the 111 question.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Chaturon: You can't revamp Pheu Thai without the Shinawatras

Chaturon Chaisaeng, one of the 111 former Thak Rak Thai executives due to be "freed" towards the end of this month after a five-year ban, isn't quite sure whether he will become a Cabinet member under Yingluck 3. But for him, one thing is clear: Pheu Thai Party can't be revamped by being freed from the Shinawatra family connection.

He told Matichon daily today that anyone harbouring the idea of isolating Pheu Thai from the Shinawatra clan would be tantamount to "not acknowledging or refusing to accept the fact."

Chaturon says that not all former members of the TRT party's executive board will make a comeback. In fact, they have split into various groups.

"The point should not be how to solve the problems of 111. Rather, the issue should be how they could help Pheu Thai or the government to do a better job," he says.

Political circles have heard rumours that Chaturon may not be among those who will get back their Cabinet posts. His critical comments on the Yingluck government's anti-flood effort recently might have cost him this job. But then, you never know. Things could change dramatically in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The ghosts of 111 are back!

The 111 former politicians of Thai Rak Thai Party haven't officially come back (deadline is May 30) but already rumours are flying thick and fast that some prominent members of this group are to be named ministers in a reshuffled  Cabinet under Premier Yingluck Shinawatra.

Pongthep Thepkanachan and Chaturon Chaisaeng as well as Suwat Liptapanlop, all former ministers under the Thaksin government, are the three names mentioned this morning in several press reports including one published in Matichon which said the Cabinet changes are now expected to take place in late June and it's all under the planning of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Don't ask the premier about these rumours. She is probably too busy trying to bring down prices of goods and curb inflation to bother with such trivial issues as replacing Cabinet members.