Sweeping Cabinet changes in store

News

With Somkid Jatusripitak tipped to become deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs in the Thaksin II government, Somchaineuk Engtrakul, Olarn Chaipravat and Boonklee Plangsiri are among the potential candidates to succeed him at the Finance Ministry, political sources said.

Somchainuek is a former permanent secretary for finance, while Olarn, former president of Siam Commercial Bank, is one of the most influential advisors in the government and has the ear of the prime minister.

Olarn was the main person behind Thaksin’s initiative to promote an Asian bond market. He is also the architect of the “supply-side” initiative involving infrastructure investment, a highlight of the TRT’s recent election campaign.

Boonklee is chief executive of Shin Corp and one of Thaksin’s most trusted aides.

Somkid’s move to another Cabinet post would lead to changes not only at the Finance Ministry, but also other key economic agencies, including the Bank of Thailand. With an absolute mandate, Thaksin said on Sunday, he was free to pick outsiders for ministerial posts. At least half of the Cabinet ministers are likely to be changed.

Confirming earlier reports that Somkid would not remain as finance minister, Thaksin said yesterday that Somkid would probably be given broad charge of the economy.

Thaksin then said Olarn and Chaiyawat Wibulswasdi, a former Bank of Thailand governor and now Somkid’s advisor, are possible candidates to join his cabinet. “I have many people in mind, including Chaiyawat and Olarn, who have already helped the government from the outside,” Thaksin said.

Both men have the backing of Somkid, who has been receiving their advice on macroeconomic matters. Chaiyawat was governor of the Bank of Thailand for about 10 months between 1997 and 1998 shortly after Thailand devalued the baht, a move that triggered the Asian economic crisis.

Boonklee has also been mentioned as among the most likely choices to run the Finance Ministry. Opinions vary on who will get the job.

“The first candidate is Olarn, who has been presented as the man for the job for a decade,” said ML Nattakorn Devakula, a political commentator at Channel 11. “Otherwise, the position may go to an executive at a top telecom firm [Boonklee].”

“I have heard that the prime minister would really like to bring in Boonklee to become finance minister,” said another political source.

Thaksin has not mentioned Boonklee, his right-hand man at Shin Corp, the telecommunications giant owned by the Shinawatra family. Boonklee was rumoured to have been considered for the position after the last election, but it is a career change he has repeatedly rejected.

“I’ve never been that ambitious to join politics,” Boonklee told The Nation late last week.

A source close to Shin Corp said Thaksin is unlikely to remove Boonklee from Shin Corp, the major source of the Shinawatra family’s wealth, because he was regarded as irreplaceable.

Thaksin said on Sunday that Somkid would probably be named head of his new economic team.

He also mentioned former finance minister Suchart Jaovisidh as a possible candidate.

Some experts said Somkid might take charge of overall free-trade negotiations, which are handled by different agencies. The public is concerned that Thai officials are insufficiently equipped to negotiate FTAs with the United States and Japan.

Despite Thaksin’s insistence that he would not make any changes at the Bank of Thailand, few expect Pridiyathorn Devakula to remain as central bank governor after May. It is widely rumoured that Thirachai Phuvanart-naranubala, secretary-general of the Securities and Exchange Commission and a former central bank official, will replace him.

If Olarn or Chaiyawat becomes finance minister and Thirachai takes over as central bank head, Somkid, as deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs, would wield enormous power over economic policy management.

It is also expected that Goanpot Asvinvichit might replace Watana Muangsook at the Commerce Ministry.

Watana was implicated in a rice corruption scandal and has been widely criticised for his spotty attention to important areas, chiefly international trade.

Goanpot, through his rice-trading business, Sangthong Group, and years of experience in the business world, is said to be qualified for the job. He served as deputy commerce minister between 1999-2001, and in 2002 he was appointed as Thai trade representative.

Goanpot’s shrewdness has impressed Thaksin and Somkid, after he was appointed director-general of the Government Savings Bank. Under his leadership the bank carried out “demand-side” policies to support the government’s populist policies, through several small credit programmes such as the village fund scheme and small and medium-sized lending (SML).

Change also is expected at the Energy Ministry, chiefly because of the government’s desire to push through the long-awaited privatisation of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.

After unveiling the privatisation plan last year, Energy Minister Prommin Lertsuridej was panned by Egat’s labour union for being unfair to employees. That was followed by months-long demonstrations against the privatisation in front of Government House.

“The rift is too deep to be repaired. A fresh new face is necessary to carry out the task,” said another insider.

Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit, who is also secretary-general of Thai Rak Thai, is expected to retain his post. As investment in infrastructure is a key engine of the new government’s policy, Suriya would be in charge of overseeing its continuity.

“Many infrastructure projects are planned to be carried out in this second term. Suriya should stay for he is the one who has been in charge of some [of them],” one of Suriya’s advisors said.

The most important infrastructure project is the completion of the Suvarnabhumi International Airport, as well as the extension of parts of the mass transit train network. The airport is behind schedule for its September 29 opening.

The government has plans for five more subway routes worth Bt500 billion and slated for completion in three to six years.

Somsak Thepsuthin, the deputy prime minister, might hang on to his post at the Agriculture Ministry.

Despite his tainted record in responding to the bird-flu outbreak, Somsak, from his Sukhothai base, helped lead Thai Rak Thai to victory in the North.

Finally, Suwat Liptapanlop, who holds the third position in Thai Rak Thai’s party list, is expected to be another prominent member of the Cabinet.

The choices of who will take on positions in the government’s second term will become clearer in the days to come, including who will control the Industry Ministry, which is now headed by Pongsak Raktapongpaisan.

“I’ll try to clear undone jobs by March. After that, it is the prime minister’s decision if I should stay or go,” Pongsak said.

Published on Feb 07 , 2005

Business Desk

The Nation

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