11 July 2024

Supporters will be hoping the latest shake-up of Pheu Thai’s leadership will restore the party’s election-winning appeal, but critics say its real purpose is to end an internal power struggle.

Pheu Thai last week re-elected Sompong Amornvivat as party leader but also added newer and younger faces to its executive committee, in a signal that the party’s real owner – fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra – is committed to restoring its glory days in government.

Many of the new leadership are closely linked with Thaksin and his sisters, fellow former PM Yingluck Shinawatra and Yaowapha Wongsawat. While party leader Sompong is close to Thaksin, his deputies Kittiratt Na-Ranong and Yutthapong Jaratsatian, as well as party treasurer Theerarat Samrejvanich, have strong ties with Yingluck. Another deputy party leader, Krieng Kultinan, is close to Yaowapha, the wife of former PM Somchai Wongsawat.

The new line-up is clear proof that Pheu Thai’s once-powerful former strategy chief, Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, has been stripped of her status. All her close aides have been denied places in the executive leadership, with the exception of former party secretary-general Anudit Nakorntab, who is among 10 deputy party leaders.

One political analyst said the shake-up will “reunite” former members of the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai, People Power and Thai Raksa Chart parties, all controlled by or affiliated to Thaksin.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said sidelining Sudarat’s team would be beneficial for the party as it marked a power shift to heavyweight politicians linked with Thaksin.

It’s an open secret that Pheu Thai has fractured into several factions, a fact underlined when several key members recently stepped out of the limelight.

In June, Thaksin’s inner circle of so-called “October People”, namely former Pheu Thai secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai, along with former executives of the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party Prommin Lertsuridej and Surapong Suebwonglee, decided to create the new political group “CARE”.

Chaturon Chaisang, former strategist of the now-defunct Thai Raksa Chart, a Pheu Thai affiliate, is also thinking about setting up a new party.

These heavyweights are thought to have distanced themselves from Pheu Thai because they were dissatisfied with Sudarat’s management style and wanted to counter her influence.

Wanwichit said the rebranded October People should attract members of the younger generation, a voter base which is expanding quickly.

The October People are former student activists who took part in the October 14, 1973 popular uprising against dictatorship and survived the October 6, 1976 Thammasat massacre.

“They are heroes of democracy in the eyes of student activists and supporters of the ongoing youth-led anti-establishment movement,” the analyst said.

Meanwhile, party sources say the shake-up’s main aim was to “energise” a party that is losing young voters to the Kao Klai (Move Forward) Party, which is challenging the establishment with demands for progressive change.

Kao Klai is successor to the Future Forward Party, which was disbanded for illegal party funding after coming third at last year’s election, driven mainly by support from young voters.


‘Gone are the good old days’

However, Pheu Thai will find it difficult to recapture its glory days because it has not shown a genuine commitment to push for establishment reforms, said another political pundit.

Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Ubon Ratchathani University’s Political Science Faculty, said the shake-up was staged to resolve an internal party power struggle rather than to bring about real policy changes.

Though some new blood has been added, the leadership is mostly made up of veterans who will wield all the power in the party, he said.

“The party has failed to show any true intention of working to reform the country’s political structure or its establishment, in stark contrast to the now-disbanded Future Forward and Kao Klai, who have shown a clear direction [in reforming the establishment] and attracted young voters,” the analyst said.

The makeover would not secure Pheu Thai the landslide election win enjoyed by its predecessors, when tycoon-turned-politician Thaksin wooed voters in 2001 and 2005 with innovative populist policies, he added.

“It’s not that easy to bring back the glory days.”

Pheu Thai’s leadership overhaul came just days after Khunying Potjaman Na Pombejra, former wife of Thaksin, was granted a rare audience with Their Majesties the King and the Queen on September 24, when she was pictured prostrating in front of His Majesty.

Soon after, chief party strategist Khunying Sudarat and her team resigned, followed by party leader Sompong, which resulted in the termination of the executive board.


Playing it safe

Despite being the largest opposition party, Pheu Thai was ousted from its role as chief warrior against the establishment by Future Forward and now Kao Klai. Meanwhile moves by Pheu Thai have faced heavy criticism from the anti-government movement and supporters.

Responding to the protesters’ demands for changes to the Constitution, Pheu Thai and four other opposition parties submitted a motion to amend Article 256 to pave the way for a Constitution Drafting Assembly to write a new charter.

However, ignoring calls from the student-led movement to reform the monarchy, Pheu Thai announced it would not touch the charter’s Chapter 1 on general provisions and Chapter 2 on the monarchy.

Youth-led rallies have for the past two months voiced demands that the 2017 Constitution be rewritten, the House dissolved and the monarchy reformed.

Pheu Thai’s decision to “play it safe” created a rift in the opposition, whose second-largest member Kao Klai withdrew support for the motion at the last minute.

Though they both agree on setting up a drafting assembly, Kao Klai also wants Articles 270-272 to be scrapped so as to “switch off” the 250 junta-appointed senators’ power to join MPs in voting for a premier, among other things.

Netizens were quick to voice their dismay and anger with Pheu Thai for ignoring calls to curtail the junta-appointed Senate.

Eventually, the party agreed to propose four motions to curb the senators’ powers enshrined in Articles 270, 271 and 272, to revoke Article 279 which legalises the junta’s executive orders, and to change the electoral system.

On September 24, Pheu Thai and five opposition parties voted against a government-backed motion for a panel to study charter amendment proposals. The motion was passed but, regarding it as a tactic to delay charter change, the opposition refused to be part of the 31-member committee of senators and coalition government MPs.

In February, Pheu Thai led the opposition in a censure debate against the Prayut Chan-o-cha government. However, the party was accused by Future Forward of making a secret deal with ruling party Palang Pracharath to allow Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan to escape scrutiny. Pheu Thai MPs used up the debating time allotted to the opposition, leaving no chance for the Future Forward MP to call Prawit to account over several controversies.

In October last year, Pheu Thai members were among the 374 MPs who voted with the government to pass an executive decree on the partial transfer of Army units and funds to a Royal security command. The 70 MPs who voted against the decree were members of the 81-strong opposition Future Forward.


By This PBS World’s Political Desk