Pheu Thai’s dilemma(s)

Hours after Move Forward’s shocking election victory, Voice TV presenter Nattakorn Devakula said something that is politically sensible but democratically questionable. Pheu Thai, he suggested, should go ahead and be a rival government-forming core.

Controversial as that sounds, he was speaking about a true dilemma preoccupying what had been Thailand’s biggest political party until May 14 this year. Since Thaksin Shinawatra formed the Thai Rak Thai Party in 1998, the political camp won every election, albeit under different names. Well, every election except the last one.

Since it was formed, whenever it led a coalition government, the political camphad picked the finance minister without fail. If it joined the Move Forward coalition now, it would be the first time that naming the finance minister is out of its hands.

Nattakorn looked as stunned as everybody else. He considered Pheu Thai to be progressive, but admitted that Move Forward was being seen as more progressive. One key detail, though, needs to be discussed more thoroughly. It’s the question whether being associated with Thaksin Shinawatra threw the “progressive” image of Pheu Thai into question.

The “Thaksin was persecuted” battle cry worked for Pheu Thai every time until the last election. Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit actually distinguished his party, now Move Forward, from Pheu Thai by saying once that “I’m not Thaksin”. The young politician apologised afterwards, but it was a statement that could not easily be erased.

Pheu Thai used the Thaksin card again before May 14, making his youngest daughter a prime ministerial nominee and facilitating as well as amplifying Thaksin’s views and potential plans regarding the economy. The man in Dubai also vowed to return to Thailand in July in what many thought was an attempt to help his party.

The rest is history now. The future is what Pheu Thai must concentrate on. Its choices remain the same: Move forward with Thaksin (no pun intended) or shake him off. Either option has its own serious drawbacks, but while Pheu Thai could keep putting the decision off in the past, it apparently is much harder to do so now.

How can a party so financially connected with the Shinawatras lose Thaksin? In addition, he can properly claim credit for several key policies that have been Pheu Thai’s selling points. But then again, the groundswell of support for Move Forward is a big indication that Thaksin is not just a great asset, as he can also be a huge liability.

Move Forward and Pheu Thai tussle over House speakership

Pheu Thai can hope that the Pita fever is fleeting, and its own massive power base is more deep-rooted. Move Forward’s Bangkok domination, for example, may just underline the fickle nature of voters in the capital, which had embraced the Democrats before, taken Chamlong Srimuang to unbelievable heights, gave Sukhumbhand Palibatra a gubernatorial election landslide, made Suthep Thaugsuban a political superstar overnight and etc. All of the said charactershave been discarded by Bangkokians unceremoniously.

In that sense, Pheu Thai can stick with Thaksin and treat Move Forward as a short trend, not long-lasting one. But what if it’s not a hype, but something that is here to stay? Pheu Thai of all parties must seriously ponder that possibility. When Thai Rak Thai was born and subsequently made waves, a lot of people thought it just triggered a new-kid-in-town frenzy. The party would prove many people wrong and go on to dominate one election after another.

Pheu Thai’s long-term goal is to get back the status of being the most popular party. That is natural. Everyone in its position will try to do the same. It will face the Thaksin dilemma, yes, but there is an even more urgent dilemma to tackle.

Should it join a Move Forward government-forming alliance? This is where Nattakorn’s thinking is democratically weird. How Thailand is structured politically, he said in one of his earliest reactions to Move Forward’s triumph, required Pheu Thai to compete with Pita Limjaroenrat’s party in forming a government coalition.

Nattakorn would have been absolutely sensible if he had been talking about business competition. Honda must try to get in Toyota’s way at all costs. What Samsung has to block is Apple’s growth. But why should Pheu Thai checkMove Forward, democratically speaking?

Just a glance at election results and everyone can tell what voters want. Move Forward and Pheu Thai have almost 300 seats combined out of 500 and that’s a crystal-clear majority. Does genuine democracy require election winners and their runners-up to rival one another? Shouldn’t it require them to cooperate for the best interests of the “majority” that support them?

Nattakorn was right about one thing, though. He said it was politically rational for Pheu Thai to compete. It is also true that, with a cooperation, Pheu Thai may keep shrinking and Move Forward may keep growing. Problem is that thispolitical rationale is a twisted one, probably whitewashed by the Republican-Democrat rivalry in America, where winners take all and margins of victories don’t matter. True democracy wants Pheu Thai to unconditionally help Move Forward, full stop.

People will say politics is not that simple. The questions are why it is that way and whether we should do anything about it.

By Tulsathit Taptim


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