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Yingluck and her Cabinet full of glittering prizes

Publication Date : 31-10-2012


It is no surprise that the public's chief response to the latest Cabinet reshuffle has been indifference. Nor has the business community shown any excitement over the identity of incoming and outgoing members of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's latest government leaders.

The third reshuffle of the Cabinet under Yingluck occurred at a critical time. Domestically, the government's economic performance and the consequences of its populist policies have met with a growing chorus of disapproval. The voices of dissent are massing, as evidenced by the surprising turnout of more than 20,000 people for an anti-government protest on Sunday. Although little was known until last week about the Siam Pitak (Protect Siam) group or its leader, retired General Boonlert Kaewprasit, protesters packed the Royal Turf Club to air their dissatisfaction with the government.

Internationally, meanwhile, financial storm clouds continue to threaten a Thai economy that could be vulnerable to external shocks. Consequences of the euro-zone crisis are still lingering, while the US economy is struggling with a high rate of unemployment.

Instead of seizing this opportunity to revamp the Cabinet so as to strengthen Thailand's chances of sailing through any coming storm, Yingluck seems to have treated the reshuffle as a routine payback for supporters of her brother Thaksin. The newly appointed Cabinet members are mostly old faces widely known for their close association with Thaksin.

No one was surprised to see Phonthep Thepkanjana, Varathep Ranatakorn, Pongsak Ruktapongpisal and Sonthaya Kunplome return to high office. Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul has also been rewarded, with the job of overseeing security and foreign affairs.

Red-shirt leader Nattawut Saikua was transferred to the post of Deputy Commerce Minister.

Political pundits forecast that Yingluck will reshuffle her Cabinet once every six months so as to keep her or her brother's political supporters happy.

"People should not expect anything from the reshuffle because it was not meant to serve the public. It was meant to solve internal issues within the Pheu Thai Party," political scientist Sukhum Nuansakul said on a Channel 3 news show on Sunday.

This reshuffle routine indeed ignores the public interest. The rotating ministers will naturally focus on their short-term political interests because they will not expect to stay for the full four-year terms.

With such a frequent and predictable change of leadership, the Education Ministry, for instance, is unlikely to produce the long-term policy needed to build a supportive infrastructure in which students can flourish.

The students are likely to get more instant give-aways, such as computer tablets, because these are tangible objects that politicians can claim as their personal policy achievements. Instead, Education ministers need to be given time to focus on long-term solutions to the low performance of our schools and students.

Frequent changes at the top of the Agriculture Ministry will also end up delivering more populist and subsidy policies, because these serve instant, political goals. The ministry's disastrous rice policy is a case in point of short-term goals.

Of course, Thailand has seen frequent reshuffles in the past, but only when the country had stronger technocrats who focused on its longer-term direction. The civil service has since been weakened by repeated political intervention.

Politicians arrange for their own people, rather than the best-qualified candidates, to oversee key ministries and state enterprises. Few civil servants these days are willing to stand up to the politicians, because they fear their careers would suffer as a result.

Politicians come and go, but the impact of their decisions on the public is huge. As such, we must call them to account, asking that our new ministers exercise their consciences and fulfil their roles with diligence, regardless of the politicking that brought them to their positions.

These politicians have no excuse for failing in their obligations. They will be supported by a prime minister who has control in the House and the Senate. A diligent public can help ensure that any negative consequences of their short-term actions will certainly come back to haunt them in the future.


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