BANGKOK – Thailand’s new Cabinet was sworn in Tuesday, creating a nominally elected government after five years of military rule but keeping power in the hands of the same allies of the army.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn presided over the swearing-in of the 36-member Cabinet, during which they pledged their loyalty to the constitutional monarch.
“Every task has obstacles. Every mission faces problems,” he told them in brief remarks. “It is normal to take on work and solve problems so that the country can be run smoothly according to circumstances.” The Cabinet afterward regrouped at Government House for its first meeting.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army commander seized power in a 2014 coup and then served as junta leader and prime minister, returns to serve again as prime minister. This time he was elected by a parliamentary vote after a March general election gave pro-military parties a majority. The junta, which had given itself almost unlimited powers without oversight, was dissolved with the inauguration of the new Cabinet.
The election was held under a new constitution and laws enacted by Prayuth’s junta aimed at disadvantaging established political parties. Critics say the vote was undemocratic and engineered to prolong rule by the military and its conservative allies.
The measures were seen as being directly particularly at the Pheu Thai party, which headed the government deposed in 2014. Pheu Thai, under various names changed for legal reasons, had won every national election since it was founded in 1998 by telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, who is despised by the country’s conservative base, which includes the military. Thaksin himself was overthrown as prime minister in a 2006 military coup.
Thaksin’s populist policies won him enormous support at the polls but also threatened the influence of traditional power holders, including the military.
After seizing power in 2014, Prayuth declared a war on money politics and so-called “influential persons,” including political power brokers with shady connections .
But in assembling a political machine, the Palang Pracharath Party that made him its candidate for prime minister recruited the same types of wheeler-dealers and made alliances with some to attain a majority.
“This Cabinet either represents old wine in a new bottle,” said Paul Chambers, a political scientist at Naraesuan University in northern Thailand, referring to major posts held by former members of Prayuth’s military government, “or a product of a multiparty and multi-factional balance of power.”
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, described the Cabinet as “dominated by patronage politics and paybacks,” including at least two members with questionable reputations who were recruited for their abilities to turn out the vote.
“The unsavory few who have had a shady and criminalized past are surprising because they will be a lightning rod on the Prayuth government’s credibility,” he said in an email interview. “It suggests that Prayuth has paid a high price for luring old-style politicians and influential figures into his party and Cabinet.”
Prayuth is both prime minister and defense minister in the new government.
His key partners are Democrat party leader Jurin Laksanawisit, who is deputy prime minister and commerce minister, and Bhumjai Thai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul, who is deputy prime minister and health minister. Anutin campaigned for legalization of the production of marijuana to aid farmers.
Three other deputy prime ministers held the same jobs in Prayuth’s military government. One, Prawit Wongsuwan, was a senior career military officer like Prayuth. Another former senior officer, Anupong Paojinda, retains the post of interior minister.
Prayuth, in a Monday night speech marking the political transition, said “Thailand is now fully governed as a democratic country with a constitutional monarch, possessing a parliament that is elected and a government endorsed by the parliament. Several rights and liberties are safeguarded by the constitution in line with the highest international norms. Pending problems will be solved through democratic processes without the application of any special powers.”
Prayuth recently revoked 66 of more than 500 special executive orders that he had enacted under his military regime. Critics said it was an attempt to make it appear that the military is relinquishing power and transitioning to an elected government. The executive orders he retained enable the military to influence politics, such as one that allows soldiers to search and arrest people they suspect of threatening national security for up to seven days without charges.
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