With new Cabinet, Thailand replaces junta with army allies

BANGKOK (AP) — 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 Cabinet, whose 36 members pledged their loyalty to the constitutional monarch. The Cabinet’s inauguration dissolved the junta that had governed while giving itself almost unlimited powers without oversight.

“Every task has obstacles. Every mission faces problems,” the king told the Cabinet members. “It is normal to take on work and solve problems so that the country can be run smoothly according to circumstances.” The Cabinet then held its first meeting at Government House.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army commander seized power in a 2014 coup ousting an elected government, returns as prime minister. This time he was elected by a parliamentary vote after a March general election that was held under a new constitution and laws enacted by Prayuth’s junta aimed at disadvantaging established political parties in favor of the military and its conservative allies.

The measures were seen as being directly particularly at the Pheu Thai party. The party and its predecessors have won every national election for two decades and have been ousted in two military coups. The party founder is telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, whose populist policies and enormous political support threatened the influence of Thailand’s 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 the junta. 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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