Drastic overhauling for Cabinet

national January 18, 2012 00:00


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Kittiratt set to take over from Thirachai as finance minister; pundits see Thaksin hand in changes; Natthawut 'rewarded'

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s first Cabinet reshuffle seems to have everything – changes to key posts, musical chair situations for lesser positions, apparent “awards” to some newcomers and suspicious arrivals that stirred whispers of “family business”. The overhaul was typical of her big brother’s political style, although some sources claim her “input” this time was bigger than most people think.

Government sources said the Cabinet reshuffle this time served two primary purposes. The changes at the Finance, Energy and Transport ministries were meant to solve work conflicts or improve performances. The other changes, it is said, were intended as a rotation to keep everyone equally happy.
Yingluck yesterday admitted that she had submitted the Cabinet reshuffle list for royal endorsement. A royal command approving the list could be handed down any time, senior government officials say.

According to a tentative list circulated among the media, Defence Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapha, a staunch ally of Thaksin, is tipped to become deputy prime minister overseeing security affairs. Yuthasak’s successor is likely to be Transport Minister Sukumpol Suwanathat, also a close ally of Thaksin. Motives for the purported changes were unclear. Sukumpol was having conflict at work, whereas Yuthasak was seen as getting too close to the military leaders for Thaksin’s comfort.
Pheu Thai secretary-general Charupong Ruangsuwan will reportedly take the Transport Minister’s seat.
Deputy Prime Minister Police General Kowit Wattana is out of the Cabinet.
The economic circles will have to come to terms with the imminent departure of Finance Minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala, whose apparent stance for fiscal and financial discipline was making the “broke” Yingluck government uncomfortable. Deputy Prime Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong is tipped to serve concurrently as finance minister and relinquish his commerce portfolio to Deputy Finance Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom, an ally of Thaksin’s sister Yaowapa. Kittirat’s job as finance minister would be to find money to support the government’s post-flood rehabilitation mega-projects and other ambitious spendings. His fiscal and financial viewpoints were believed to better suit the government’s situation than Thirachai’s.
Kittiratt had worked closely with Virabongsa Ramangkura, chairman of the strategic committee for reconstruction and future development. He totally supported Virabongsa’s move to make use of the country’s international reserves to pay off the Bt1.14-trillion debt of the Financial Institutions Development Fund (FIDF), despite strong opposition from Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala and the central bank.
The two sides finally reached a compromise when Kittiratt agreed to delete a controversial clause from the emergency decree. The showdown, however, was seen as Thirachai’s swan song.
Kittiratt’s first challenge will be to convince the economic and business circles of his ability to work on the fiscal front and be independent. As someone who will have to be seen as more politically autonomous than any other Cabinet member, his close ties with Yingluck and Thaksin may become a shadow that he has to shake off.
Kittiratt welcomed the reported reshuffle, insisting that it would benefit the country and increase the work efficiency of the government. 
“I am confident about the premier’s decision. There will be some new ministers, while some ministers will have to take more serious jobs,” he said.
Pheu Thai MP Suchart Tadathamrongvej, who lately tightened his relationship with the red shirts through visits to red-shirt villages, will likely replace Education Minister Woravat Auapinyakul who is tipped to move to the PM’s Office. If the reported changes materialise, Suchart will be the 10th education minister in a pro-Thaksin government, a phenomenon that always raised questions about how the ruling camp perceives the all-important issue of education.
Also reportedly on the way out are Energy Minister Pichai Naripthaphan and Deputy Education Minister Surapong Ueng-ampornvilai. 
In what will be another intriguing change, Pheu Thai MP and red-shirt leader Natthawut Saikua is tipped as a newcomer for the position of deputy agriculture minister. Supporters say he has the expertise to deal with land problems, but critics would view his Cabinet appointment as paying off a debt of gratitude. 
If reports are confirmed, Natthawut will lead a parade of Thaksin’s business and political allies into the Yingluck 2 Cabinet. Nivatthamrong Boonsong-paisal and Thai Trade Representative Nalinee Thavisin, are poised to be allocated portfolios in the PM’s Office. Spotlight, however, will be on former ThaiCom executive Arak Chonlatanon, who has long served in Thaksin’s business empire and will reportedly replace Pichai Naripthaphan as energy minister.
Chart Pattana Party will allow the departure of Industry Minister Wannarat Charnnukul due to his illness. Former Thammasat University College of Innovation dean Pongsvas Svasti will be his successor.
Chulalongkorn University lecturer Chatchart Sithipan is tipped to become deputy transport minister.
Despite news reports about Yingluck’s “frustration” stemming from inefficiency seen during last year’s flood crisis, Deputy Prime Minister Yongyuth Wichaidit, Justice Minister Police General Pracha Promnok and Science Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi remain in their posts. Surapong Towichukchaikul, whose known “achievements” only involved Thaksin’s visas and passport, remains in his post.
A Thai-language newspaper analysis said yesterday that this reshuffle was largely Yingluck’s call. There were reports that she was extremely frustrated with what happened during the flood disaster.
However, other analysts argue that if the list leaked to the media is confirmed, Thaksin’s signature can also be seen all over it. Moreover, despite claims about Yingluck being upset about the performance of some ministers, the reshuffle does not seem to tackle the issue of efficiency. Positives were apparently few, with reported changes at the Prime Minister’s Office cited among them.
Critics immediately point out that the reported reshuffle follows the same old pattern of Shinawatra big guns sending their trusted allies to a game of musical chairs. “This time it even looks more obvious than the first Cabinet,” one source said.
Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said Yingluck must explain to the public why she’s making such a sweeping change to the Cabinet after only about five months. However, drastic Cabinet changes are typical of Thaksin, who many believe has a big say in this reshuffle. His supporters defend the policy as a way to whip “slackers” in the Cabinet into action, but others see vested interests as a big motive, in which case Arak’s arrival at the Energy Ministry will be closely watched. 
Yingluck, responding to criticism, said she saw the “only five months” remark differently. “Five months is a long time and after such a long period, changes are appropriate,” she said.