BANGKOK — Thailand's government overhauled its Cabinet halfway through its first term, in an apparent attempt to salvage its popularity waning because of financial losses over a rice subsidy and other projects.
The changes, endorsed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, involve 18 Cabinet posts, including the key commerce, defense and education ministries, and are the fourth Cabinet reshuffle since Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office in August 2011.
Government spokesman Teerat Ratanasevi said Sunday the changes allow ministers with appropriate expertise to drive the government's strategies forward in the remaining two years of its term.
"The new lineup is looking better after the administration has been tested by many challenges in the first half of its term," Teerat said. "The newcomers are veteran and professional politicians who are appropriate for their jobs."
In the new Cabinet, Yingluck now also sits as defense minister. Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung, who had been overseeing security affairs, including the 9-year-old Muslim insurgency in the southern border provinces, was removed from his portfolio and appointed labor minister, a move seen as a demotion.
Critics said the reshuffle was necessary because the popularity of the government and the ruling Pheu Thai party has plunged due to recent developments, including enormous losses from the rice-pledging scheme, a delay in an $11 billion water management megaproject and an unpredicted loss for the first time in 37 years of a parliamentary seat in a key Bangkok constituency.
Last week, hundreds of farmers, including supporters of Pheu Thai, marched in the capital to voice their opposition after the government declared it would pay farmers 20 percent less for rice to cut losses from a subsidy program that dislodged the country from its spot as the world's No. 1 exporter of the grain.
"This particular Cabinet reshuffle is critically needed, as people's confidence in the government is declining. This is because it failed to deliver what it had promised," said Sukhum Nuansakul, a political analyst and former rector at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University. "Some ministers had to take responsibility and were let go for the failures, such as the commerce minister for the failed rice-pledging scheme."
A Bangkok University poll this month showed a 10 percent drop in Yingluck's popularity, from a 51.2 percent approval rating last November to 40.4 percent, after the rice scheme's losses and the loss of the seat in the Bangkok constituency. Pheu Thai's popularity declined from 48.8 percent to 41 percent.
Public sentiment against the Yingluck government has also been visible in weekly white-mask rallies in Bangkok's central business district, with urban middle-class protesters calling for an end to her administration and accusing the government of corruption and underperformance.
The Cabinet shake-up sees the return of political allies of Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.
The former leader of Thaksin's disbanded Thai Rak party, Chaturon Chaisaeng, is now education minister, while another former party member, Paveena Hongsakul, a women's and children's rights advocate, takes over the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security's top post. Both returned to politics after a five-year political ban against them for electoral fraud expired last year.