Thai ministers take key posts in new political party

Dr Uttama Savanayana, leader of Palang Pracharath Party, speaking during its general assembly in Bangkok yesterday.
Dr Uttama Savanayana, leader of Palang Pracharath Party, speaking during its general assembly in Bangkok yesterday.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Move seen as sign that PM Prayut's supporters gearing up to have him re-elected next year

Four ministers in Thailand's military-led government took up key positions in a new political party yesterday in what some see as a sign that supporters of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha are ramping up preparations to ensure that he returns to power after an election expected in February.

Palang Pracharath Party unveiled an executive committee with Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana as its leader, Science and Technology Minister Suvit Maesincee as deputy leader, Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong as secretary-general, and Prime Minister's Office Minister Kobsak Pootrakool as its spokesman.

The four ministers are highly credentialed civilians in the military-dominated Cabinet. Dr Uttama, for example, holds a doctorate in management from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Dr Suvit's doctorate in marketing is from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

Dr Kobsak, an alumnus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been a key spokesman for the government's bid to develop a new industrial and high-technology region that it calls the Eastern Economic Corridor.

In a convention hall just outside Bangkok, several hundred people opened the party meeting yesterday by singing the royal anthem and this was followed by founder Chuan Choochan paying his respects in front of a picture of King Maha Vajiralongkorn placed on stage.

After the meeting, Dr Uttama symbolically handed out white jackets with the party's logo to the newly minted executive committee members. Among them were Prime Minister Prayut's deputy secretary-general Puttipong Punnakan.

Dr Uttama would not say if the party would nominate Mr Prayut for the post of prime minister. "It depends on what the party members would say. It's a long way off," he said, adding that Palang Pracharath would still need a final go-ahead from the election commission before becoming a full-fledged party.

He said: "Palang Pracharath Party is not connected to the military. The party is being born through the gathering of like-minded people who want to see changes, to see Thailand being able to move from past obstacles and problems that have really seriously affected our country."

The last general election, in 2011, was won by Puea Thai Party. Puea Thai and its previous iterations - with support massed in northern and north-east Thailand - remains Thailand's most electorally successful political entity in recent years, having repeatedly won elections since 2001. This despite the fact that the group in one form or another has been dissolved or seen its leaders forced out of office.

Puea Thai's success has rattled the established Bangkok-based power centres and been the source of deep political conflict in the country for over a decade.

A new Constitution, enacted in April last year, promises to reduce Puea Thai's political dominance by giving the military strong influence over the composition of an appointed Senate.

The future Upper House, together with elected legislators, can pick a non-elected person as prime minister.

Political activity in the kingdom - which has been ruled by the military since a coup in 2014 - has intensified after a ban on political gatherings was relaxed this month to allow parties to hold meetings for their members. But they cannot campaign, even via social media.

Premier Prayut, who last Monday said he was "interested in politics", has been criticised for embarking on campaign-like trips across the country while limiting the activities of potential political rivals.

He has so far not announced an election date.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 30, 2018, with the headline 'Thai ministers take key posts in new political party'. Print Edition | Subscribe