King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Sunday approved the reshuffle, which saw 12 cabinet members dropped. But most key ministers retained their portfolios, including Kittirat Na-Ranong, the finance minister, and the foreign and interior ministers.
Ms Yingluck’s decision to retain Mr Kittirat and promote several confidantes prompted speculation about tensions in the relationship with her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who was ousted in a coup in 2006. “PM defies Thaksin on new line-up”, the Nation newspaper wrote in a headline.
Mr Thaksin, who lives in self exile in Dubai, is frequently described as “de facto PM”. His glamorous younger sister was initially dismissed as a “caretaker” or “proxy” for her brother when her Puea Thai party won a landslide victory in 2011.
Mr Thaksin has vowed to return if he can negotiate a deal to overturn corruption-related charges laid in absentia under the previous Democrat government. But analysts said the cabinet move suggested Ms Yingluck was in no hurry to see him return.
“With this reshuffle, she has signaled growing political confidence and independence,” said one western diplomat.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrats, said the reshuffle was more about handing “rewards” to certain politicians than “serving the people”.
But Thai commentators said the choice of at least 10 cabinet ministers ran counter to the wishes of Mr Thaksin, including Mr Kittirat, whom the former PM is said to oppose.
Ms Yingluck also refused to appoint certain Thaksin allies from his “red shirt” support movement. But she did bring back some loyal Thaksin MPs who were previously banned from political activity for five years under a court ruling.
“The inclusion of some influential and experienced politicians would have the effect of improving policy implementation,” said Sriyan Pietersz, head of research at JPMorgan in Bangkok.
Meanwhile, about 10,000 supporters of Pitak Siam – a group affiliated with prominent monarchists and anti-Thaksin “yellow shirts” – on Sunday demonstrated against the government.
The group said it would hold a larger demonstration outside Ms Yingluck’s offices in coming weeks. A spokesman said its complaints included the government’s controversial rice subsidy scheme, its close relations with Mr Thaksin, and its alleged failure to protect the monarchy from acts of lèse-majesté.
Recent polls indicate that Ms Yingluck has grown in popularity this year, after being widely criticized for her government’s slow response to the flood crisis of late 2011. In a national survey, polling group Abac found that 53 per cent of respondents would vote for Ms Yingluck’s party if an election was held today, while 36 per cent would vote for the main opposition Democrats.
More tellingly, 64 per cent said Ms Yingluck had “become more self-confident” and 59 per cent approved of her performance on numerous official trips overseas as well as at home. – By Gwen Robinson in Bangkok