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Somkid - who else could it be?

Januyary 11, 2001

AFTER all the speculation, it boils down to Somkid Jatusripitak. Who else could it be? For two years Somkid has been a member of Thaksin Shinawatra's inner circle. He has been instrumental in formulating the Thai Rak Thai's policy platform and drafting a strategic plan to win the election.

Using basic marketing and survey strategies, Somkid and his team were able to identify the needs and wishes of rural voters neglected by past governments, but who formed a powerful mass of voters.

Thai Rak Thai's policy platform grew out of these surveys, and became the populist agenda that won the election. These policies include universal health-care coverage, debt suspension for farmers, and a Bt1-million development fund for each village.

Of course, fulfilling these promises won't come cheap. The government will need at least Bt100 billion a year. So the task of the next finance minister is to find the money to pay for these plans.

Since Somkid was the leading architect of these policies - which amount to a revolution in Thai public policy - it seems natural he should become finance minister.

An outsider who does not share the same policy convictions as the Thai Rak Thai leader would have a tough time working as finance minister. With the public mandate in hand, Thaksin should not hesitate to hand the coveted position to his most trusted aide.

Somkid, 48, who earned a PhD from Northwestern University, taught at the National Institute of Development Administration. He has experience in the capital markets as an adviser to the Stock Exchange of Thailand. At the height of the crisis, he served as secretary to then-finance minister Thanong Bidhaya. Later he joined Saha Pattanapibul, as one of its directors.

Before the election, Bank of Thailand governor MR Chatu Mongol Sonakul was rumoured to be the top candidate for the finance portfolio. Then it was Kosit Pampiemras, executive chairman of Bangkok Bank, MR Pridiyathorn Devakula, president of the Export and Import Bank of Thailand and Virabongsa Ramangkura, the former deputy prime minister.

It is possible these leaks were aimed at keeping the spotlight off Somkid. After Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda had a starring role at the Finance Ministry, political rivals were under pressure to name a candidate for the finance portfolio with equal star billing. But the Thai Rak Thai does not agree with that philosophy.

A key Thai Rak Thai member said the next finance minister would not be treated with like a star, but would assume his duties just like other Cabinet members - with the prime minister calling the final shots. The country should be run by a decisive chief-executive officer - not a chief financial officer - and Thaksin has become that CEO. He will not allow the CFO to outshine the CEO, as Tarrin did to Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai.

It is no secret that Chatu Mongol, who incurred the wrath of the ruling Democrat Party, met with Thaksin a number of times prior to the election. He was ready to leave the central bank to join Thai Rak Thai. First, he was to become a candidate on the party list, yet he was told to hang on at the central bank out of fear that the Democrats might appoint a crony there.

So Chatu Mongol hung on. But then Thai Rak Thai officials became afraid he might deviate from the party line, given his occasional challenge of the Chuan administration. Moreover, Chatu Mongol might have a hard time working with Snoth Thienthong and Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who sacked him as permanent secretary for finance. Snoh and Chavalit are likely to be allies in the next Thaksin administration.

In fact, Chatu Mongol is likely to have a rocky working relationship with Somkid, if indeed he becomes finance minister, unless the central bank cooperates with the government. Chatu Mongol has pursued inflation-targeting policies, and passed the burden of stimulating the economy to the Democrat-led coalition. The Thaksin government will also stimulate the economy, through massive fiscal spending, but it will need the cooperation of the central bank to do so.

With the unprecedented public mandate enjoyed by Thai Rak Thai, the central bank had better behave. There is no way anybody can stop Thaksin and his new finance minister from enacting their policies. So, the real showtime is yet to come.




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