Breakthrough in police chief power play … but only after damage done

abhisit_vejjajiva

LIKE it or not, it was a severe blow to the stature and clout of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva when he failed to convince members of the National Police Commission to agree with his choice for the new police chief. The disagreement of those balking at his proposal was just short of an outright revolt.

He needed a few days for a good massage of his ego and wounded pride, in Surat Thani province, where Democrat heavyweights gathered to provide support for the younger brother of Suthep Thaugsuban, the party’s king-maker, who is vying for a by-election House seat.

Abhisit must have been comforted by the party’s veterans, who have long experience in the rough-and-tumble of cut-throat politics, where, at times, friendship has to be disregarded for self-serving interest.

Abhisit still sported a brave face while there. At a party rally he tried to explain the unexpected turbulence during the meeting, where the incumbent police chief was the key opposition to the choice for his successor, as proposed by the prime minister. Most people must have been bewildered by the young man’s poor handling of the issue.

The open dissent by five commission members was obviously due to Abhisit’s lack of decisiveness in the past, including having the courage to remove civil servants who are still loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra. These people remain as obstacles at various state agencies, still hoping that their fugitive patron will return to reclaim power some day.

The soft character and lack of a firm hand in dealing with these thorns in the side, and other hostile elements, have made his opponents believe that the young national leader is like a lamb among a pack of hyenas in a lonely field. They have tested him a number of times and found no resolute response, making them assume that he can be manipulated and abused.

When Abhisit was embarrassed by the failure to ram through his choice of police chief, nobody in the Cabinet and in the Democrat Party readily came to his side. It was as if they knew that the leader was a loser in the power play, within and outside the party.

Either it was due to the same old style of gutter politics or otherwise there was a mention of former prime minister Chuan’s name as a possible successor, now that Abhisit can no longer take control. Good for him that Chuan quickly shot down such speculation designed to create friction in the already doubtful power structure of the party.

A test of his leadership occurred on Sunday, when he could not go live on air for his weekly programme on Channel 11 due to a technical failure in the satellite link. It was the second time he has experienced such a snafu, and it has already been established that red-shirt elements are thick among the technical personnel at the station.

This time, a head rolled. Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, Satit Wongnongtoey removed the station chief and put him in a remote post in Surat Thani. It was the first exercise of the man’s courage, though very belated. He was aware that if he refused to act, it could be his own head that eventually rolled, due to his sloppy performance all along.

The removal of the Channel 11 station chief was necessary before an overhaul in the manpower structure of the station, and in the Department of Public Relations, which controls the station. Since the Democrats took charge of government, little has been done to make use of state-owned media to reach the public.

On the other hand, Thaksin and his cronies take the battle to the airwaves, putting the government on the defensive in the process. Satit was regarded as a weak link but nobody in the Democrat Party wants to mess with him. Somehow he has been noted as the golden boy of some party hotshot.

What is likely to occur in this issue? There was an assurance from Suthep that things will go smoothly as a solution presents itself and that Abhisit can achieve a breakthrough that will restore his leadership stature as well as public confidence. Good news for him. A commission member switched camp and said he would vote for Abhisit’s choice in the next meeting. Why did he change his mind? That’s anybody’s guess.

That was a success after the damage had been done. But Abhisit has to face another challenge to his mettle from the red shirts, who plan a big rally on Sunday. This time they vow to oust him from office for his failure to exercise national leadership.

This should be the best time to prove that he is the boss. Now that a security law can be used to deal with political nuisances, Abhisit can demonstrate to the red shirts that his past weakness, perceived by them in earlier confrontations, is a facade for the toughness inside him. Let’s hope so.

By Sopon Onkgara
The Nation
Published on August 25, 2009

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