What next for new Thai cabinet?

By Jonathan Head BBC News, Bangkok

The past two years in Thailand have been a strange interlude.

They have seen it knocked off its pedestal as one of Asia's most promising democracies, and revealed deep divisions between those who aligned themselves with populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and those who distrusted his seemingly boundless ambition to reshape Thai politics.
There have been few moments of real drama.

Even the military coup that deposed Mr Thaksin was quickly accepted; normal life resumed after 24 hours.

And after more than a year of shadow boxing between the pro- and anti- Thaksin camps, a democratic government has been restored, with the pro-Thaksin camp once again on top.
So has anything changed, or been resolved?

At first glance, the new cabinet appears to be a dispiriting relapse to the messy and inept coalition politics that led Thailand into the Asian financial meltdown of 1997.

Many of the faces in the new government are in fact very old faces, veterans of previous administrations with little to recommend them except an insatiable appetite for political office.
Others appear to be mere nominees of politicians who either cannot hold office or prefer to stay in the background.

There are four wives, one husband, one younger brother and even one father of more powerful figures present in this cabinet, and a host of other ministers with no obvious qualifications for their jobs.

Thaksin ambitions
This is probably just as the military and royalist figures who mounted the coup would like it.
In their 15 months in power, they failed to dent Mr Thaksin's popularity in rural Thailand, neither proving the allegations of corruption against him, nor providing the better governance they had promised.

But they did manage to get Mr Thaksin and 110 of his key lieutenants banned for five years from holding political office for past electoral abuses - hence the need for less experienced nominees in this cabinet.

They brought in a new constitution which weakens the power of elected prime ministers.
And in their last weeks in office they passed a law limiting the prime minister's influence over military promotions - an influence Mr Thaksin had used to get his own people in key army posts.
All these measures, they hope, will prevent any future elected government from concentrating power in its hands to the degree Mr Thaksin did.

There is little doubt Mr Thaksin still harbours an ambition to run Thailand again, despite his frequent claims that he has given up on politics.

He has clearly chosen many of the new cabinet ministers; in recent weeks key People Power Party (PPP) figures have been seen flying back and forth to Hong Kong, from where Mr Thaksin was monitoring developments in Thailand.

He still has huge sums of money he can call on, although around two billion dollars remain frozen by the courts here - unfreezing it will be one of his first priorities.

Getting the five-year ban on himself and his colleagues lifted is another priority.

He could also use the majority his coalition now has in parliament to push for amendments to the constitution.

He might even push for some kind of retribution against those behind the coup.

They in turn can keep the pressure up on him through the courts, where Mr Thaksin still faces charges of corruption, and by trying to peel members of the coalition away from the PPP. It seems very unlikely that they would try another coup.

Royal influence

The new Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, is a possible wild card. Although was appointed by Mr Thaksin to head the PPP, he is an ambitious and independent politician, with strong ties to the military and the monarchy.

He could well defy Mr Thaksin's authority and try to plough his own path on some issues.

So who is it that Mr Thaksin and his loyalists are up against? It is an informal network of top military officers, business figures and bureaucrats who align themselves closely with Thailand's monarchy.

They see Mr Thaksin, a self-made billionaire, as a threat to the established hierarchy in Thailand which is loosely based on proximity to the monarchy.

His most powerful opponent is Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister and army commander who is now the king's most trusted adviser.

Because of tight restrictions on what you can say about the monarchy in Thailand, there is no open debate over this contest, but it amounts to an almost existential struggle over who rules the country in the future.

After more than a dozen military coups and no less than 17 constitutions, Thailand has endured the sort of upheavals which would bring other countries to their knees.

Yet it has enjoyed peace and economic growth for most of the past 50 years.

The reason this system has held together so well is that just about everyone here has agreed to keep the king at its apex, revered and untouched by politics, but still able at times of acute crisis to step in and guide the country to a new compromise between competing groups.

But the king is now 80 years old, his health fragile. There is no blueprint for the succession.
When that moment comes, the rules determining the distribution of wealth and power could change dramatically.

The struggle we are witnessing now, between the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps, is almost certainly fuelled by the knowledge that that moment may not be far away.

Source: BBC

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