Somchai Sujjapongse’s rejection of a role in national development leaves the deputy PM in need of a trusted skipper
Somchai Sujjapongse’s abrupt decision to call it quits as permanent secretary at the Finance Ministry – its highest-ranking bureaucrat – has surprised the government’s economic-management team. The team’s leader, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, is busy forming a new political party to pave the way for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to return to power following the next general election.
On Tuesday the Cabinet approved Somchai’s transfer from the Finance Ministry to the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), where he was to serve as secretary-general, but with his resignation he has effectively rejected the post.
While some observers point out that the NESDB post is less powerful than the top job at Finance, others have argued that it is no less important. This is especially true, they say, since Prayut expects to push forward his 20-year national strategic-development blueprint ahead of the election now expected in February 2019.
Prayut will have to take this crucial step to deliver more long-term results if he decides to remain in power after running the country for the four years since the 2014 coup. One of the most important tasks ahead of his probable comeback would be to chart the country’s development course over the next two decades and lay the groundwork amid unprecedented challenges in technology, demographics and other areas.
To accomplish this, he needs someone competent enough to steer the NESDB as it coordinates efforts by all state agencies on the same mission, which includes boosting Thailand’s international competitiveness, caring for the rapidly
ageing population and reducing
economic and social inequality to improve the chances for political reconciliation.
Now that Somchai has turned down the offer, alternative candidates are being vetted for the top NESDB post, including Tossaporn Sirisamphun, the incumbent chief of the Office of Public Sector Development Commission.
For Somkid, the Prayut government’s economic tsar, returning to power via the upcoming election is a major challenge after helping Prayut implement various economic and social policies over the past three years. Somkid has floated the idea of inviting Prayut to lead the new political party, whose name has yet to be finalised. The economic guru hopes to ride the “Pracharat” bandwagon to the polls after the government spent tens of billions of baht on a series of public- and private-sector partnerships aimed at uplifting the economic wellbeing of rural voters.
The party, tentatively referred to as Pracharat, and its platform will test Somkid’s ability to help Prayut remain in power in accordance with democratic norms. As the former right-hand man of Thaksin Shinawatra, Somkid believes voters still want a strong leader to further shore up Thailand’s political and economic order. He will have to sell the idea that the four years since the coup have not been enough and we need military-backed civilian leadership for another four years.
And Somkid is preparing to help Prayut deliver the goods if he wins another mandate – just as he did for Thaksin in the early 2000s and for Prayut in the past three years. After losing more than a decade to political upheaval, the country needs the continuity of political stability and robust economic growth, as well as a competent planning chief eyeing long-range development goals.