Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Yongyuth Wichaidi yesterday resigned from amid a spiralling graft probe scandal.
His surprise resignation as deputy prime minister and interior minister raises more questions than it answers.
His announcement came shortly after he and his colleagues in the ruling Pheu Thai Party had persistently insisted on his right and ability to stay on in the coveted posts despite the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) finding him guilty of wrongdoing in the decade-old Alpine scandal.
Yongyuth, who is also the Pheu Thai leader, said yesterday that he had decided to step down out of fear that remaining in the positions would be against the law. He said his resignation would become effective from Monday.
The abrupt decision led to doubts on whether he had voluntarily opted to step down. However, Yongyuth insisted the decision to quit did not result from anyone's pressure.
Pheu Thai sources said ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who is believed to be pulling the strings from behind the ruling party, wanted Yongyuth out after he was implicated in the Alpine scandal.
Yongyuth had often been protected by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is Thaksin's sister, against pressure for him to be replaced. But with the latest legal headache threatening to question his legitimacy in the Cabinet, Yingluck could not help him any more, according to the party sources.
Pheu Thai's strategic committee was earlier concerned that Yongyuth's decisions as deputy premier and interior minister could affect the government and the ruling party due to the lingering uncertainties about his status.
With its two previous parties being dissolved for breaking the law, the ruling party could not risk another dissolution by remaining stubborn over Yongyuth's legal problems, party sources said.
On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung took over from Yongyuth as chairman of the weekly Cabinet meeting although Yongyuth had insisted that he could chair the meeting despite the legal issue. Yongyuth, instead, went to inspect flooding in Prachin Buri, on an "urgent assignment" from the prime minister.
The prime minister is in the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly and is due to return to Thailand today.
The NACC had found Yongyuth guilty of unlawfully endorsing the 2002 sale of monastic land owned by Wat Thammikaram to Alpine Real Estate Co and Alpine Golf & Sports Club Co while he was serving as deputy permanent secretary for the Interior. Last week, the interior ministry's Civil Service Committee resolved to expel Yongyuth retroactively, but it also said he was qualified to benefit from the 2007 Exoneration Act.
The anti-graft agency later said Yongyuth was not eligible for exoneration because he had never served the term of his punishment - a condition stated in the law.
Yesterday, Yongyuth called a press conference at Saket Worawihan Temple to announce his decision to leave the Cabinet, after offering alms to monks. He said that he would retain his positions as Pheu Thai leader and an MP.
Red-shirt leaders Jatuporn Promphan and Natthawut Saikua and some 20 red-shirt supporters were among his well-wishers. They gave him red roses while offering moral support. Some of them told him not to bow out of the Cabinet.
"This is an important day in my life. I have decided to resign as deputy prime minister and interior minister, with my own willingness and without being influenced by anyone else," Yongyuth said, adding that he had "prepared for a long while" before coming up with the decision to quit.
He said his resignation was due to his intention to avoid possible legal problems arising from his status in the Cabinet. He pointed to conflicting opinions from legal experts about his case. "Some said that I did the right thing [in previously staying on in the seats] but others said I could no longer do my job," he said.
When asked if he had consulted the prime minister before making his decision, Yongyuth said he had talked to "senior persons whom I respect" about this matter. He said the prime minister would make the decision about his replacements for the two Cabinet seats.
Thaksin wanted to fill Yongyuth's vacant seats with politicians close to him from the Group of 111 former executives of Thaksin's disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party. Among the candidates for the coveted Interior seat are Poomtham Wechayachai, Bokhin Bhalakula and Sermsak Pongpanit.
With two major Cabinet seats left vacant, the prime minister now has two options - resisting the pressure for a Cabinet reshuffle by having members of her Cabinet become caretakers of the posts, or yielding to her brother Thaksin's pressure for a big shake-up in her government.
Some party sources said that the changes could affect as many as 10 Cabinet posts.
Yingluck has postponed a Cabinet reshuffle in order to avoid causing ripples in the ruling party.