By Martin Petty
BANGKOK, May 7 (Reuters) - With his willingness to compromise and public relations skills, Thailand’s new caretaker prime minister, Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, may be what is needed to take the heat out of a political crisis that is close to boiling point.
Niwatthamrong, 66, will hold the fort until elections tentatively slated for July 20, but he inherits a stuttering economy and limited powers that for months dogged predecessor Yingluck Shinawatra, who the Constitutional Court ordered to step down on Wednesday for abuse of power.
“The caretaker government’s responsibility now is to organise an election as soon as possible,” said Niwatthamrong. “I hope the political situation will not heat up after this,” he added of the court ruling.
While barely known outside Thailand, Niwatthamrong has been in and around the fringes of Thai politics for years and has earned the trust of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s exiled brother and founder of a populist political juggernaut that has won every election for the past 13 years.
Niwatthamrong was chief executive of broadcaster iTV, the once independent television channel that became the Shinawatras’ public relations machine when Thaksin’s telecoms conglomerate Shin Corporation bought a majority stake in it during his first term in office from 2001-2005.
Niwatthamrong was an executive with Shin Corp where he sat on board meetings with Yingluck, who was at the time a CEO of its unit, cellphone operator Advanced Info Service.
He was brought into politics to help neophyte Yingluck in 2011 as part of a team that crafted her public image and swept her to power in a landslide election win.
He then served as a minister in her office, in charge of public relations and the media. Considered a safe pair of hands, he was later given the commerce portfolio to manage the fallout of a rice price guarantee scheme that incurred massive losses.
“Thaksin trusts him a lot, he’s got a reputation as a good networker who knows PR and can deal with all sides,” said Naruemon Thabchumpon, a political science lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“Niwatthamrong is not abrasive and he knows not to make enemies, especially at this time.”
His close allegiance with the Shinawatras means he is unlikely to placate conservatives and anti-government protesters, who numbered more than 200,000 in some Bangkok rallies and forced the annulment of a Feb. 2 election.
After half a year of turmoil, Thaksin’s Puea Thai Party would be content just to hang on for a few months longer until an election it is almost certain to win, with or without a Shinawatra on the ticket.
“The urgent priority for us is ensuring a new election is scheduled,” caretaker education minister, Chaturon Chaisang, told Reuters. “Niwatthamrong is a compromising person and he’ll have everyone helping him all the way.” (Editing by Mike Collett-White)