Regime moving chess pieces into place
Cabinet goes poaching for talent as poll nears, write Aekarach Sattaburuth and Nattaya Chetchotiros
The regime’s political intentions are becoming clearer after it appointed two brothers from the Khunpleum clan as officials in what is seen an attempt to round up talent to give it more options in terms of fielding prime ministerial candidates in the general election expected in February.
The cabinet yesterday appointed Sonthaya Khunpleum, former tourism and sports minister, as an adviser on political affairs to the prime minister and named his younger brother Itthiphol an assistant to the new tourism and sports minister.
Political observers believe the regime is plotting to snatch as many veteran politicians as possible ahead of the poll.
The latest hires come amid reports that Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak is forming a new party and would support Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as premier should he bid to remain in politics.
The Khunpleum family, led led by Somchai Khunpleum, also known as Kamnan Poh, has considerable influence in the eastern province of Chon Buri.
Mr Sonthaya, 55, is the leader of the Palang Chon Party and the eldest son of Kamnan Poh, and Mr Itthiphol, 45, a former Pattaya mayor, is the fourth child of Mr Somchai, who was freed from jail last Dec 14 after he was deemed to have met special criteria for an early release.
He was jailed for hiring a hitman to kill a political rival.
Gen Prayut admitted yesterday he needs a well-connected political veteran to help him learn more about politics as the country heads toward the election.
“I want to hear what they have to say. I need to have these politicians around me for a better understanding of things,” he said.
“But that doesn’t mean they are here for my own personal interest. We’re heading there [elections] and I need people who can advise me,” he added. “I don’t know how politics works, so I should learn.”
According to the prime minister, the appointments were proposed by the tourism minister and a deputy prime minister with his approval before the move was tabled for cabinet consideration.
Gen Prayut said he has no loathing for politicians and the appointments are based on suitability.
However, he said he has no idea if Mr Sonthaya would step down as the leader of the Phalang Chon Party and urged the public not to rush their judgements.
Asked if t his would reflect t he face of a future government, he said: “What government?”
A source in the Pheu Thai Party said yesterday the move is an indication that Gen Prayut does not want to be an “outsider” prime minister.
It suggests Gen Prayut wants to be on the prime minister nominee list and aims to win support from politicians, according to the source.
Meanwhile, the Pheu Thai Party is said to be fighting back to keep its allies and its heavyweights. Party bigwigs will play a round of golf today with Sasomsap family members, who have influence in Nakhon Pathom.
There are about 20 of them including Somchai Wongsawat, Chousak Sirinil, and Chaikasem Nitisiri. The golf course of their choice is in Nakhon Pathom and is owned by the Sasomsap family.
Political observers believe it is more than a round of golf because the regime is reportedly ready to hijack the faction from the former ruling party. Moreover, members of the Sasomsap family have yet to confirm their party membership status.
Acting Pheu Thai secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai yesterday played down the gathering, saying it is limited to just a game of golf and the party members usually play twice a month. He said they have played on almost every golf course in Bangkok.
“They have until the end of this month to confirm their party membership status. We are adults and we make our own decisions,” he said. A party source, however, admitted the golf round is the party’s attempt to show a strong relationship between the party and the faction.
The departure of the Sasomsap family has had little or no impact on Pheu Thai as it commands about 10 seats and the party has replacements, the source said.
The regime’s strategy is affecting the Democrat Party, which has parted ways with Sakoltee Phattiyakul.
The former Bangkok MP quit last week to become a deputy governor for Bangkok amid rumours he is being eyed by Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak to build up the latter’s political base.
Democrat Party deputy leader Nipit Intarasombat yesterday described the strategy as “fishing in your neighbour’s pond”, saying it did not come as a surprise.
The easiest way to build up a party is to snatch politicians from other parties, he said.
According to Mr Nipit, he expects the regime to intensify its strategy as elections draw near and parties will have to be prepared.
I need to have these politicians around me for a better understanding of things.
GEN PRAYUT CHAN-O-CHA PRIME MINISTER
The political situation is expected to heat up after several key players clarified their positions over Thai New Year. As of last week, as many as 98 groups had applied for new party registrations, 15 of which were endorsed.
That aside, attention now goes to two individuals who could shed some light on the country’s political prospects.
They are former street protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban and Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak.
Mr Suthep recently announced he would be returning to politics and pledged support for a party that claims it will prioritise serving the people’s needs.
He did not disclose any further details or the name of the party.
However, critics have speculated it could be the Muan Maha Prachachon for Reform Party, which is being registered by his younger brother Thani.
Mr Suthep is the head of the Muan Maha Prachachon Foundation, which evolved from the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid announced that he would support Gen Prayut to carry on as prime minister after the general election expected next February.
His announcement has given more weight to rumours that he is forming a political party to back Gen Prayut.
Mr Somkid has neither admitted nor denied the speculation. He has just dropped a hint that a new party is being formed to support Gen Prayut.
He told reporters to seek out Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana and Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong for details.
The remarks coincided with media speculation after a political group applied to register the Pracharath Party with the Election Commission (EC), with Mr Uttama speculated to serve as its head and Mr Sontirat as secretary-general.
Interestingly, the moves of Mr Suthep and Mr Somkid emerged while Gen Prayut made it more clear about his interest in politics.
Gen Prayut made comments last week indicating he may be considering the best way to resume premiership after the election.
When asked if he would accept an invitation by any party to serve as its prime ministerial candidate on the parties’ lists, he said: “I’m not sure yet whether I would say yes. What if they don’t choose me [to be prime minister]? So I would only accept if [members of parliament] agreed to choose me so that I can pursue change.”
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has come up with a new strategy to clear the political path for Gen Prayut to carry on in office as a party’s list candidate rather than an “outsider prime minister”.
The change likely came after the regime assessed that trying to keep Gen Prayut in power as “outsider” premier — meaning someone who is not on the parties’ lists of candidates but who is later voted in by parliament — would be no mean feat.
Gen Prayut was popular during his first two years in office and this could make the regime imagine he might try to follow in the footsteps of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, who was once invited by an election-winning party to take the position of prime minister.
But the situation has since changed substantially, with Gen Prayut’s popularity dropping while resistance to the junta is escalating along with pro-election movements.
Most importantly, the two largest political parties, Pheu Thai and the Democrats, have firmly announced they would not support an “outsider prime minister”, which could diminish his chances.
But if Gen Prayut were to appear on the list of any party from the outset, the situation could be quite different. He would not be branded an “outsider” anymore, but one of the regular players in the political game.
With this approach, resistance could be eased and parties may be more comfortable supporting him.
I agree that Gen Prayut should take this approach instead of exploiting an undemocratic provision in the charter to maintain power. Still, it is not enough as Gen Prayut would be far more than just a player; he would also be a ruler.
In recent months, Gen Prayut has embarked on provincial trips to promote his policies.
Moreover, his government will inject over 100 billion baht into grass-root communities in the second half of this year through the Thai Niyom Yangyuen programme.
If Gen Prayut wants to be a player, he must let others play, too.
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