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What’s in a Thai Cabinet?

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

by Ken Lohatepanont*

Picture: Thai cabinet, July 16th 2019

Source: Prachatai


Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha recently reshuffled his cabinet for the first time since the general election in 2019. The reshuffle has been foreshadowed by factional infighting within Palang Pracharath, which saw the fall from grace of Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak’s “Four Sons” (สี่กุมาร) faction and the ascendance of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan to the post of party leader. Leadership changes in coalition partners such as the Action Coalition for Thailand (ACT) also necessitated the reshuffle.


With the possibility of another reshuffle on the horizon, how can we evaluate this reshuffle? Many predicted that the 2017 constitution’s electoral system would produce fragmented coalition governments prone to infighting and instability. The Prayut 2 government is, as expected, a coalition government consisting of no less than twenty parties. But has the government really been as unstable as might be expected from these institutional dynamics?


In this piece, I investigate some historical data about the Thai cabinet: 1) cabinet stability, 2) cabinet size, and 3) cabinet roles. I also take a broader look at the evolution of the Thai cabinet.


Cabinet stability


The length of time before the need for a cabinet reshuffle can be an indicator for how stable the cabinet is. In this table, cabinets are listed by duration before the first major reshuffle. Excluded are minor reshuffles caused by resignations or deaths of individual cabinet members, or minor reshuffles involving relatively small numbers of ministers. This table does not include cabinets that were the result of military coups, as they have tended not to involve reshuffles.


Table 1. Length of time before major cabinet reshuffle

(There were no major reshuffles in the Prem 3 cabinet, which lasted 2 years from August 1986 to August 1988.)


According to this metric, the Prayut 2 cabinet is actually not more or less stable than many cabinets of the past thirty years, nearing the stability of the Yingluck and Thaksin cabinets. This is despite the fact that the under Yingluck and Thaksin the coalition’s core parties were much more dominant in parliament. In fact, the stability of the Prayut 2 cabinet is quite remarkable because it has suffered from no resignations or minor reshuffles before its first year in power elapsed. This is a surprising result, given that weak cabinets and coalitional infighting were expected from the 2017 constitution.


A key reason that this may have been the case is due to the institutional dynamics of an appointed senate that is able to vote for prime minister, a unique temporary provision of the 2017 constitution. Given that there is no real prospect of toppling the current administration even via an election — it is difficult to imagine enough senators breaking to support another party in the coalition — it has suited coalition parties more to stay in line and reap the benefits of being in government.


Compared to their elected counterparts, unelected cabinets tend to be much more stable. The two Anand cabinets and the Surayud cabinet experienced no major reshuffles. In this category, however, the Prayut 1 cabinet is an anomaly, with no less than three major reshuffles, but there are two possible explanatory factors. Firstly, it remained in power far longer than either the Anand or Surayud cabinets. Secondly, it made the unusual decision to appoint a large number of ministers from the military, and these ministers were later shuffled out in favor of technocratic appointments.


Cabinet size


Appointing ministers to the cabinet is a crucial way to satisfy factional and coalitional demands. Thai cabinet sizes are governed by the section on the Council of Ministers in the constitution. The 2017 constitution specified that “The King appoints the Prime Minister and not-more than thirty-five other Ministers to constitute the Council of Ministers”.[1]


Cabinet sizes used to be much larger than they are currently. The 1991 constitution allowed the prime minister to appoint as many as forty-eight cabinet ministers, which led to an immediate ballooning in the size of the cabinet in the 1990s. But while there is a limit to the number of people who can be appointed to hold ministerial positions, there is no limit to the number of cabinet positions that can be created. As such, the prime minister sometimes holds concurrent ministerial roles (Prayut currently serves concurrently as Minister of Defense). Deputy prime ministers are also particularly likely to concurrently hold other positions as the role of deputy prime minister itself often comes without specific responsibilities. [1] [2]


Graph 1. Fluctuation in cabinet roles from 1990 to 2020


Table 2. Cabinet size since Thanin Kraivichien

A number of observations can be made from this data. Firstly, every elected cabinet in the past thirty years has chosen to appoint the maximum number of ministers permitted under the constitution. This is to be expected as it allows the highest number of parties and factions to be rewarded.


Unelected governments, which do not face the same pressures, have tended to appoint significantly smaller cabinets. Indeed, the second Anand cabinet is notable for its small size especially when measured against the standards of the 1990s, as Anand in the wake of Black May did not intend to govern but merely to guide the nation through an electoral transition. Here, the Prayut 1 government once again is an aberration: cabinet size did not significantly decrease after the 2014 military coup.


Cabinet roles


From the 1932 revolution to Sarit Thanarat’s premiership, a large number of floating ministers (ministers without portfolio) were created in each cabinet. Phraya Manopakorn, Thailand’s first prime minister, had more ministers without portfolio than ministers with specific responsibilities, for example. However, the number of ministers without portfolio gradually decreased until they were eliminated completely under Sarit. Since then, however, other roles without specific portfolios have also been created, including deputy prime minister.


The role of deputy prime minister does not come with specific responsibilities, and allows governments to provide recognition and titular satisfaction to factional and coalitional partners. The greatest number of deputy prime ministers have been created under elected governments, with usually around four or five per each cabinet. In the Prayut 2 government, both Anutin Charnvirakul (Bhumjaithai leader) and Jurin Laksanawisit (Democrat leader) were awarded deputy prime minister titles as the leaders of two major coalition partners.


Table 3. Roles in each cabinet at formation

Another role that has seen change over time in the position of the Minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office. The number of Ministers attached to the Prime Minister’s Office has been decreasing since the 1990s, from a peak of 10 in the second Kriangsak cabinet to a low of one in the Prayut 2 cabinet. This is likely due to the creation of new ministries, which allowed more roles to be doled out without needing to create ministers without specific portfolios. Prayut has kept the number of Ministers attached to the Prime Minister’s Office the same after his reshuffle.


The prime minister can also assign deputy ministers to the ministries. The number of deputy ministers also peaked during the 1990s, with six deputy industry ministries being appointed under Prime Minister Chavalit. Under Prayut, on the other hand, no more than two deputy ministers have been appointed to each ministry. Certain ministries with large budgets, such as Education and Interior, have consistently been allocated deputy ministers.


Core party dominance


How dominant has the core party of each coalition been? One way to measure this would be through the number of cabinet posts the core party of each coalition has received, compared against the proportion of government MPs that come from the core party.



Table 4. Proportion of cabinet roles going to core coalition party


The core coalition party has tended to receive less ministerial roles than its parliamentary strength would suggest. The Prayut government has not bucked this trend, which is unsurprising given the number of coalition partners that it must satisfy. The size of the government majority, which reflects the relative strength of the coalition and the core party, does not appear to have any effect on these proportions.


At times, formulae have been used in order to ensure that each party in the coalition is adequately represented in the cabinet. For example, it is known that during the first Chuan cabinet, ministerial quotas were calculated at around one post per four MPs.[4]


Conclusion


Thai cabinets have gone through significant evolution since their inception in 1932. From the start when cabinets were small and mostly revolved around ministers without portfolio, the roles and sizes of cabinets continually changed until they reached its current form after the promulgation of the 1997 constitution. Overall, despite the rather extraordinary circumstances of its ascension to power, Prayut’s cabinet has behaved in line with how post-1997 elected Thai cabinets have tended to behave, both in terms of stability and its provision of positions.


Interestingly, Prayut has chosen to break with tradition only after his reshuffle. Instead of replacing the PPRP ministers who resigned from the cabinet with fresh PPRP politicians, the prime minister made an array of technocratic appointments. Suriya Juangroongrueangkit, a key PPRP stalwart whose desire to take on the energy portfolio is an open secret, was rebuffed. Instead, Prayut granted the PPRP the roles of deputy labour minister and minister attached to the Office of the Prime Minister — two relatively insignificant roles. Even after the resignation of short-lived finance minister Predee Daochai, Prayut ignored public gesturing by deputy finance minister and PPRP member Santi Prompat, instead going on another extended search for an independent candidate.


As Termsak Chalermpalanupap writes, “Unsurprisingly, many senior politicians in the Phalang Pracharat Party are unhappy with the glaring incongruence of the largest government party having control of no major ministry.”[5] But despite the dissatisfaction, for now the peace still seems to hold within the Prayut cabinet. Whether that will hold as the prime minister continues to weather multiple storms, involving both political and economic crises, remains to be seen.


*Ken is a recent baccalaureate graduate from Berkeley's Political Science program

[1] 2017 Constitution of Thailand.” Constitutional Court of Thailand: 59. http://www.constitutionalcourt.or.th/ occ_en/download/article_20170410173022.pdf. [2] Even after election to a second term, Kriangsak chose to appoint a large number of independents as ministers while ignoring the political parties. For further information see here. [3] Although Prayut is closely aligned with Palang Pracharath, he is not a member of the party. Including him would increase PPRP’s portion to 42%. [4] Surin Maisrikrod. "THAILAND 1992: Repression and Return of Democracy." Southeast Asian Affairs, 1993, 327-49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27912083. [5] Termsak Chalermpalanupap. “Thai Cabinet Reshuffle: Prayut Gets His Way (For Now).” August 11, 2020. https://www.iseas.edu.sg/media/commentaries/thai-cabinet-reshuffle-prayut-gets-his-way-for-now/