An unholy triangle: party, Cabinet and popular front
The new Cabinet line-up, the third in slightly over a year, doesn't promise a big shake-up in terms of delivering an elevated performance.The fact that 22 portfolios have been reshuffled doesn't suggest a comprehensive improvement. It simply means that the game of musical chairs has to be played all over again so that political debts can be settled and the "quota system" gets implemented more vigorously.
Premier Yingluck Shinawatra's claim ("I did it myself") that there has been no interference from her elder brother Thaksin was slightly more persuasive this time because her inner circle has been retained, most notably Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Kittirat na Ranong. There was also the surprise appointment of a professional physician, Dr Pradit Sindhavanarong, as the new health minister.
Yingluck's decision to keep Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom in place is probably the riskiest decision, since this means she has yielded "wriggling room" to distance herself from the highly controversial, expensive and unsalvageable rice price-subsidy scheme. The opposition's proposed censure motion against the government next month would undoubtedly zero in on this "weakest link" in her government's policies.
Whether he gave any specific instructions to his sister or not, Thaksin's grip on the new Cabinet remains strong. For one thing, his two most trusted men in the current line-up - Communications Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan and his deputy, Chatchart Sithipant - have been promoted to more powerful posts.
Charupong, who is also Pheu Thai Party secretary-general, has been moved to the influential Interior portfolio, while Chatchart has been elevated to the post of communications minister. Nobody should be surprised if Charupong is made party leader, to replace Yongyuth Vichaidit, in the party's next internal election.
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 on the international scene.
The return of at least three prominent figures from the "Group of 111" to Cabinet posts after serving their five-year political bans underscores Thaksin's unmistakable hold on the Cabinet.
Pongsak Raktapongpaisal, as 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 is 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 will be plain sailing, though. The fact that core red-shirt leader Jatuporn Promphan has not made the list could well be a potential time bomb. It remains unclear whether this was Thaksin's own decision or whether strong opposition from Premier Yingluck finally removed Jatuporn's name from the new line-up. But other core red-shirt leaders have previously said they would feel betrayed by Jatuporn's being left out of the new Cabinet.
It was never a secret that Thaksin had, one way or another, given the impression that Jatuporn would be given a Cabinet portfolio in this latest 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 will 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 and the Cabinet and the mainstream Pheu Thai Party leadership will become more difficult if cracks caused by the latest shake-up 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 forces. 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 inevitable looming conflicts between the party, the government and its own popular front.