Thailand’s Buffet Cabinet 2.0: A Case of Political Indigestion

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Thailand’s Buffet Cabinet 2.0: A Case of Political Indigestion

With a reformist opposition gathering strength, Thai officials may see the current government as the last chance to gorge themselves at the public’s expense.

Thailand’s Buffet Cabinet 2.0: A Case of Political Indigestion

Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is sworn into office on August 23, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/เศรษฐา ทวีสิน – Srettha Thavisin

The Pheu Thai-led government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together from some 10 political parties, and includes ministers from six parties. The fact that junior coalition partners Bhumjaithai, Palang Pracharath, and Thai Raksa Chart managed to get 16 of the 36 total ministerial portfolios, including the interior, agriculture, energy, and education portfolios, is the first indicator of Pheu Thai’s weak position.

The second indicator of the fragility of the Pheu Thai coalition is the reputation of the questionable ministers themselves. Thammanat Promphao, who was briefly a deputy agricultural minister in the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha prior to his removal, is now minister of agriculture. Thammanat’s past includes being jailed in Australia for narcotics trafficking and being arrested in connection with a murder in Thailand after returning from Australia.

Another questionable character in the new coalition government is Chada Thaised of the Bhumjaithai party, who Prayut previously nixed for a ministerial position. Chada has now emerged as deputy minister of interior, a powerful post. He is said to be the godfather of Uthai Thani province and was harassed mercilessly by Prayut’s coup government between 2014 and 2019.

These are only two of the more questionable cabinet appointments. Other dark clouds hang over the ministries of Education, Energy, Environment, Labor, and Commerce. All of this suggests that putting the right person in the right job was not the primary criterion at play in the assembly of Srettha’s cabinet.

The inability of Pheu Thai to exert a strong influence on power distribution will likely have drastic effects on budgetary allocations and the attendant corruption, which plagued the previous government. In this respect his government resembles the so-called “Buffet Cabinet” of Prime Minister Chatchai Choonavan, which held power from 1988-1991, and was notorious for corrupt “gorging” at the public’s expense.

However, Chatchai’s buffet cabinet may end up appearing famished compared to the gluttony of corruption scandals, lack of unaccountability, and abuse of power that look set to take place under the current administration. Thai society received a taste of what’s to come when the son-in-law of Deputy Interior Minister Chada Thaised, now responsible for cracking down on powerful individuals involved in criminal activities and corruption of the political system, was arrested in Uthai Thani in October for attempting to extort money from a water contractor.

In May of this year, the Move Forward Party achieved a notable triumph in the Thai elections, boosting its parliamentary seat count from 81 in the 2019 election, won by its predecessor Future Forward, to 151 in 2023. Despite this, they fell short of the 276 seats required to independently form a government. After unsuccessful attempts to create a coalition, the political landscape shifted in August when Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Thailand after a 15-year self-imposed exile and within hours of his return, the Thai parliament elected a new prime minister. The ascent of Srettha Thavisin, a real estate developer by trade, put an end to Thailand’s prolonged political standstill and managed to forge an unexpected alliance between the Pheu Thai party and the influential conservative elite, which had previously ousted it from government through legal or military maneuvers.

However, the Thai conservative elite have backed themselves into a corner by obstructing the formation of an MFP-led government. In so doing, they have created the conditions for an eventual tectonic shift in Thai politics.

Srettha’s government will likely last its full term due to the uncertainty of outcome in the next election and most importantly, the acknowledgement that this government may be the last opportunity for corrupt officials to have a hearty feed for a long time to come.

The elite’s failure to heed the voice of the voters and their reluctance to nurture young successors has brought about a leadership dilemma, which has forced them to reach out to Pheu Thai and their septuagenarian political opponent Thaksin Shinawatra to help stave off defeat, at least for now.

After the success of the Future Forward Party (FFP) in the 2019 elections, the judiciary quickly moved to eliminate the potential threat and the party was disbanded in February 2020 by the Constitutional Court. The court ruled that the party had violated election laws by receiving an interest-free loan from its party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, and thus, it had engaged in an unlawful financial transaction. This ruling led to the dissolution of the party, the disqualification of its leaders, including Thanathorn, from politics, and the banning of party executives from participating in political activities for several years. The decision was met with controversy and criticism, as some saw it as a politically motivated move to suppress a party that had gained significant popularity and posed a challenge to the established political order.

By not accommodating the Future Forward Party after their success in 2019 and instead disbanding the party they have created a Move Forward Party that is even more ideologically driven and grassroots-oriented. The founders of the FFP, including Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul Kulthida Rungruengkiat and Pannika Wanich were willing to work with the establishment for change. However, the MFP has proven unwilling to cooperate with the Thai right.

The Thai elite have demonstrated a persistent inability to self-reflect and reform even the smallest elements of the political, economic, social and cultural systems. This has led to a steady and consistent delegitimization and support of Thailand’s elite as seen by the MFP’s near complete capture of the nation’s capital Bangkok in the May 14 election.

The Thai elite will likely continue hunkering down, while failing to address the serious structural problems facing the economy and political body.

Compromise is not in the DNA of today’s MFP, Thailand’s strongest left-liberal party. One thing to keep in mind about Thailand’s progressive movement is that it is now ideologically led by a ground-up approach. The party is often driven by its voter base, reacting and making decisions on the fly in accordance with this pressure from below.

Many Move Forward parliamentarians are true working-class people who have felt the sharp sting of social inequality. The party’s parliamentary cohort includes labor activists, construction workers, and persons with unfortunate life histories who are unlikely to join the other members of government at the “buffet.” The MFP is now a powerful political player with a platform of thorough reform, which has now taken firm root among the Thai electorate.

While Thailand’s political landscape teeters on the brink of transformation, the success of the MFP, driven by grassroots support, signals a potential shift away from traditional political elites. The future of Thailand’s political landscape depends on whether the elite adapts to the looming challenge of satisfying a more engaged and demanding electorate or simply continues to enjoy the gluttony of their influence on budgetary allocations, the military, and the judiciary.