Ex-ministers’ new political party faces uphill climb for electoral success

Sarng Anacot Thai Party, the new political party launched last week by former economic ministers in the current government, lacks the magnetic pull to win the hearts of people, say analysts, who believe it will be tough for the party to win big in the next general election.

Sarng Anacot Thai, which translates as “Building Thailand’s future”, is founded by Uttama Savanayana, former leader of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, and Sontirat Sontijirawong, former secretary-general of the party.

The new party has embraced a moderate political position, neither far right nor far left. They have also made it clear that they will not nominate Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as their candidate for prime minister in the next election.

Low electability

Based on their political stance and the key members introduced on the launch day, analysts reckon the party does not have the potential to win big in the next election. They say the key factor in winnability is having a political base in provinces or constituency MPs, which Sarng Anacot Thai lacks.

“The party is unlikely to make any political impact. Looking forward, the chance to win is low due to their lack of a political base,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean at Ubon Ratchathani University’s Faculty of Political Science.

Another political pundit, Wanwichit Boonprong, from Rangsit University, reckons the party could emerge as a mid-size party with less than 40 seats. He explained that to win an election a party needs a strong political base provided by constituency MPs, but Sarng Anacot Thai appeared to place high hopes on winning popularity nationwide through party-list MPs.

Thai lawmakers are drafting an electoral bill to switch from a one-ballot to a two-ballot system. Both the main opposition Pheu Thai Party and the ruling Palang Pracharath are expected to benefit from this rule change, as it offers them a better chance of winning MP seats from both constituencies and the party-list system.

Larger parties will also benefit from a recent constitutional amendment that restores the strength of the 500-member lower house to 400 MPs from constituencies and 100 MPs from the party-list system, compared to the current lower house’s 350 and 150, respectively.

The analysts also questioned the ability of the two founding leaders to win in the next election.

Titipol said both Uttama and Sontirat did not play any major role in the ruling party winning seats in the House of Representatives in the 2019 election, unlike other veteran politicians with an entrenched political base.

Another factor that contributed to Palang Pracharath getting more seats was the fondness of some voters for the military regime after the 2014 coup, he said.

A businessman who asked not be named shared a similar view, saying the challenge for the new party was to win seats in the House of Representatives.

They are unlikely to get much funding for their political activities, he said, hinting at the widely acknowledged role of money in political campaigns.

Uttama and Sontirat were ministers in the Prayut government formed after the 2014 coup led by then Army chief Prayut. The duo later founded the Palang Pracharath which became a vehicle to help Prayut return as prime minister after the 2019 general elections. Both of them left their Cabinet posts and the party in 2020 after internal power struggles.

Wooing the swing vote

Observers view as “blindly optimistic” their pitch as a neutral party to be an alternative in a highly polarized society where the battle lines have been clearly drawn between the liberal and conservative camps.

“It’s a romanticized view to think Thai people don’t want to see any conflict. But the truth is, Thais are a deeply divided society,” said Wanwichit.

He believes Sarng Anacot Thai Party is expecting to grab voters who are disillusioned with the ruling Palang Pracharath and Prayut, as they realize the premier’s popularity is on the decline. But it will not be easy to get the swing vote as other small and medium-size parties, such as Kla Party led by former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij, are also eyeing the same vote segment, the pundit added.

Is Somkid on board?

The failure to introduce the party’s PM candidate at the launch also appeared to make the party less interesting, observers say.

Former deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak, who is known to be the preferred candidate for prime minister under the Sang Anakot Thai banner, did not show up at the party launch. It is not clear yet whether he will be on board with the new party.

Somkid was the leader of the four government functionaries —Uttama, Sontirat, Kobsak Pootrakul, former deputy secretary-general of the Prime Minister’s Office and Suvit Maesincee, former minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovations — who together resigned from the government in July 2020.

“If Somkid does not join the party later, they will not be able to draw much funding,” said Titipol.

Titipol also was skeptical of the new party’s political leanings. He believes Sontirat and Uttama may later support PM Prayut again.

Wanwichit pointed out that Somkid may wait and see how many constituency MPs from other parties join the new party before making a decision. “He may prefer to play the role of mastermind or remain behind the scenes,” said the analyst.

Not inspiring confidence

The founders have tried to portray the new party as representing a wide range of interest groups. They introduced several business executives, academics, as well as provincial leaders at the launch ceremony.

Among those who have joined the party are Kamphol Panyagometh, former president at the National Institute of Development Administration, Viraj Vithoontien, former environmental specialist at the World Bank, and Boonsong Chalethorn, one of the former student leaders in the 1973 student uprising against military dictatorship who is also a specialist on the social welfare system in Europe.

Other members of the new party include Pongprom Yamarat and Nopphong Theeraworn from the business sector, and Tucksaorn Kongkaprasert, Olarn Weranond as well as software developer Area Wattanayanakul from the startup and technology sector.

Politicians included Santi Kriranand, a former member of Palang Pracharath, former Pheu Thai Party secretary-general Suphol Fongngam and former Democrat Party deputy leader Niphit Intarasombat.

Well-known community leaders included Kaew Sangchu from southern Phatthalung province and Sivarot Jitniyom from central Karnchanaburi province.

“The names are not well-known enough to have a ‘wow’ impact,” said Wanwichit.

Does their past performance give them credibility?

The two leaders — Uttama and Sontirat — are presenting their new party as a vehicle to rescue the economy hit hard by the rising cost of living, the persisting COVID-induced public health crisis, relatively high unemployment, the decline in income, high household debt and widening inequality.

The short-term challenge is to check the cost of living while in the long term, Thailand must be able to compete in the global market, said Uttama. In the pre-COVID period, the Thai economy grew at a slower pace, at 2.3 percent in 2019, and shrank 6.1 percent in 2020 after it was hit by the pandemic.

Analysts, however, are not buying the idea of their ability to turn the economy around.

Wanwichit thinks Uttama and Sontirat’s poor performance as Finance and Energy ministers respectively in the Prayut government were a key problem. Wanwichit referred to the Palang Pracharath policy during the election campaign in March 2019 to push for a Bt425 minimum wage.

“The two leaders [Uttama and Sontirat] are unattractive and not capable of making voters feel they are their hope,” said Wanwichit.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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