11 July 2024

While Thaksin Shinawatra’s camp has never looked more vulnerable, it used to lose political power from positions of apparent invincibility all the time. In 2005, the Thai Rak Thai Party won 376 out of 500 House of Representatives seats, only for a coup to wipe that out in the following year. Its reincarnation, the People’s Power Party, reclaimed state control and looked comfortable, until a cooking show and parties’ dissolutions changed everything.

A Red Shirt uprising in 2010 would eventually reinstall the camp in the corridors of power. By that time it was “Pheu Thai” and, again, the party seemed to have celestial views of Thai politics while it reigned. Then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was poised to lead it to another impressive election victory but any grand plan was suddenly in tatters thanks to a controversial “amnesty” bill and Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s tanks.

Fast-forward to today, Srettha Thavisin is having a stormier start than any of his predecessors from the camp, who enjoyed “honeymoons” of their own. Thaksin presented economic hopes and had Jatuporn Prompan and Sondhi Limthongkul on his side in his early days. Samak Sundaravej was a romanticized prime minister. Yingluck was a breath of fresh air in the male-dominated Thai politics. (We shall take away Somchai Wongsawat who was nothing but a panicky stopgap.)

Unlike those before him, Srettha is having to sleep with the enemy. That is making him defend the party’s flagship policy from a very bad position. And, unlike the others, he is not perceived as the symbol of an ideological struggle. Jatuporn sarcastically saying Srettha is becoming the loneliest Thai politician may not be an overstatement.

In short, Pheu Thai is skating on very thin ice. But this is not to belittle past hostility facing the camp. This is to say that yesterday’s enemies were engaged when this political force was in a more solid position. And this is to highlight the fact that every time the party looked set to dominate Thailand politically, the game was reset at its expense.

Depending on future circumstances, the current fragility can be either real or deceptive. Take the digital wallet scheme as an example. The Thai Rak Thai government wouldn’t have to worry about finding parliamentary support for the funding, and neither would the People’s Power Party or Yingluck’s troops. Srettha, on the contrary, is seeing the policy’s fate at the hands of the very people who were always very critical of the camp’s methods of getting and spending money.

Considering that, the fragility is real. But will the reluctant allies kill the borrowing bill intended to get digital wallet going? Probably but not definitely. Rejecting the bill could lead to great turmoil which could let Move Forward slip through the door. The allies certainly will have to measure that against passage of the loan bill which is an economic risk.

Taking that into account, the fragility can be deceptive. A Thai Rak Thai-dominated Parliament could have passed the borrowing bill without much of a fuss and so could Pheu Thai when Yingluck was prime minister. If Srettha’s bill survives and becomes law, its final look will like that of a soldier emerging from the most violent war zone. Yet while these scenarios may have different details, one key thing they all have in common is that the bill is passed.

Better still, if the bill scrapes through, Pheu Thai will not have to look over its shoulder that much because what happened to Thaksin, Samak and Yingluck as well as the party dissolution would not materialise that easily this time.

One weird theory, though, is gaining a little traction. According to this one, Srettha is just putting on a big show. Pheu Thai in fact has started to believe that digital wallet is much more monetarily troublesome than it is beneficial politically, so it wants its own election promise to die at the hand of Parliament in order to pre-empt all the troubles and save the party’s own face.

Even that strange theory seems to fit the idea of living dangerously. A lot of “bad things” will have to happen for digital wallet to be aborted, but what Pheu Thai will get is an extended calm. After all, Pheu Thai’s ultimate aim is to survive. And by “survive”, it refers to the party, not its digital wallet policy.

Football fans are familiar with the term “high line”. It’s a tactic in which the last defensive players stay close to the middle of the pitch when their team is in possession of the ball. This is precarious because the said team look vulnerable almost all the time, but if played with great visions and awareness, the constant “vulnerability” ensures victory more than any other strategy.

Pheu Thai is playing the high line, and they are doing it in the most dangerous place, hoping it can be the safest. They are looking very vulnerable in plain sight trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Not many people are betting on Pheu Thai right now, but then again, not too many betters saw Srettha as prime minister after May 14 either.

Tulsathit Taptim