The vice presidency of the United States, a particularly unhappy occupant of that office once said, is “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”
Second in command is a prestigious title, but politicians throughout history have often approached it with a degree of caution. Playing second fiddle can imply great responsibility or none at all. One could be Dick Cheney, a shadow president, or Mike Pence, an ever-obedient prop to be rolled out as wallpaper decoration during press conferences.
Yet for all the skepticism that one might have for such an office, willing Thai politicians who want to be deputy prime minister appear in abundance. Such abundance, indeed, that the current cabinet has five serving concurrently. Three hold that office without any other portfolio (economic tsar Somkid Jatusripitak, legal alchemist Wissanu Krea-ngarm and military elder Prawit Wongsuwan), while two serve as ministers as well (commerce minister Jurin Laksanawisit and health minister Anutin Charnvirakul).
In other countries, the office is granted given sparingly. The UK cabinet, for example, often does not even currently have an official deputy prime minister. Since 2015, various MPs have been referred to as the “de facto deputy” to the prime minister, occupying fancy titles such as ‘first secretary of state’ and ‘Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’. But none were deputy PMs. In that same time period, Thailand has had eight.
A broader historical look makes the excessive number of deputy prime ministers even more obvious. There has been 29 prime ministers, but a total of at least 123 deputy prime ministers (and this list only starts with Plaek Phibulsongkram’s cabinet).
This makes it fair to raise two questions: why does Thailand give out the title of deputy PM as readily as 7/11 used to give out plastic bags, and is this a good idea?
Let us take these in turn.
The question of why we have so many deputy prime ministers is easy to answer: over the years, it has become an easy way to reward political allies and satisfy factional demands. Why, for example, are the commerce minister and health ministers also deputy prime ministers? The answer is obvious: because Jurin is head of the Democrat Party and Anutin is head of the Bhumjaithai party, key members of the government coalition.
They have also provided useful launching pads for further elevation in politics. Thaksin Shinawatra, for example, was not a Trump who jumped straight from business into politics; he was previously deputy to both prime ministers Banharn Silpa-archa and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.
Thus deputy prime minister is the perfect empty title — one that implies prestige but no power, recognition but no responsibility. It is a position that is easy to create and unlimited in number. No wonder, then, that they are so abused in Thai cabinet history.
But just because it is easy to do does not mean that having a million deputy prime ministers is a good idea.
Firstly, this muddles what should otherwise be clear lines of authority. This was illustrated recently when one deputy PM, Prawit, told reporters that the operation to evacuate Thai citizens from Wuhan was set to commence and was then promptly contradicted by Anutin. Who, then, was to be believed, given that technically both hold the same rank?
Secondly, this creates overlapping centers of power that makes governance more messy than it should be. Somkid used to widely be known to be the coordinator of all economic policy in the cabinet — he was simultaneously deputy PM and the minister of finance. Since the election, however, he has handed over his finance portfolio to Uttama Savanayana, while another deputy PM overseeing economic affairs has been created in the form of Jurin, overseer of the commerce ministry. So where does the buck stop for economic policy?
There are already many factors that help make Thai governance chaotic. One small step to take to reduce this dysfunction would be to establish clear lines of authority and reduce the number of second in commands.