Student protest puts Pheu Thai into perspective

Thai anti-government protesters gather front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand, Saturday, July 18, 2020. Several thousand anti-government protesters have rallied in the Thai capital Bangkok to call for a new constitution, new elections and an end to repressive laws.

Imagine a full-strength Pheu Thai smelling blood and firing on all cylinders against a government reeling from the “VIP” scandal related to COVID-19. Granted, that would not have put the biggest opposition party back on the corridors of power overnight, but Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha would have felt a lost worse than “being hit by a plane”, which was how he said he felt on knowing about the Egyptian soldier and diplomat’s child.

Truth is Thaksin Shinawatra’s political camp is being sandwiched. On one side are the powers that be who are wielding all the constitutional and legal advantages. On the other is an ally on the surface, but beneath the proclamation of shared ideology is a formidable competitor presenting itself as the real extremist, which is more outspoken, bolder and fresher.

And this “ally” has apparently done what Pheu Thai would have been doing, or would have been expected to be doing. For legal reasons, the Move Forward Party has been forced to deny that its fingerprints were all over the weekend’s gathering at the Democracy Monument, but one thing is certain: Nobody thought Pheu Thai was behind it.

Opinion polls have stated that Pheu Thai remains the most supported political party in Thailand, but that probably has much to do with the commonly-known fact that its political base, the Northeast, is the biggest region in the country. What’s new is that the same opinion polls have warned Pheu Thai that although it is still highly popular, Prayut Chan-o-cha is more backed as prime minister than any candidate from the opposition party.

Prayut’s odd, ebbing and flowing popularity can be dealt with through routine political means, be it propagandizing or marketing methods. Harder to cope with are the constitutional and legal rules that are firmly against Pheu Thai. For example, the party’s normal monopoly when it came to party-list MPs is no longer there. The new Constitution dictates that “every vote counts”, meaning that votes for candidates losing in constituency elections will be used to calculate how many party-list MPs each party gets in addition to conventional MPs. This new rule is a big deal, and it takes Pheu Thai’s previous advantage off the table.

Changing that rule requires charter amendment. This brings up another big Pheu Thai disadvantage. Amending the charter is not possible without overcoming the pro-Prayut Senate. And there is no way the senatorial powers can be reduced if the Constitution remains as it is. It’s a debilitating catch-22.

Pheu Thai obviously wants to change the Constitution, but it needs help from the Move Forward Party, at least to counter charges that the real motive is all about Thaksin. Yet what is happening before everyone’s eyes is that Move Forward, the reincarnation of the dissolved Future Forward Party, has made bigger noises than Pheu Thai on charter amendment.

It is clear that when it comes to charter amendment, Pheu Thai is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Pushing too much and the Thaksin shadows will loom unfavorably; but doing too little will let Move Forward get all the credits.

That is another big problem for Pheu Thai. For years, the party presented itself as Thailand’s only “extremist” or “liberal” or “pro-democracy” camp. The selling point has been snatched away by Move Forward. When a fearless prodigy arrives on the stage, he or she steals the limelight, and the one before him or her automatically pales in comparison.

Move Forward is nowhere near as popular as Pheu Thai in the Northeast, but the former has apparently surpassed the latter in Bangkok and had the younger generation on its side. The situation has become more glaring over the past few days, and the next Bangkok gubernatorial election will tell more about the two parties’ uneasy alliance.

Something else has been happening as well. In addition to the disastrous formation of the Thai Raksa Chart Party, “Red-shirted villages”, which once formed the bulk of Pheu Thai’s political fortress, have been disintegrating. While it can be argued that the villages may have just lost their names, and not ideology, it’s an indisputable fact that various founders and advocates of “red-shirted villages” have come under the Prayut-led government’s wings.

The problem of defections has been compounded by conflicts among those who stay. Sudarat Keyuraphan is allegedly at odds with Chalerm Yoobamrung and Thaksin’s top lieutenants led by Phumtham Wechayachai are not happy about one, if not both, of them. Phumtham’s formation of the CARE group is a curious move, but it will not help improve Pheu Thai’s image among supporters.

Pheu Thai is at a crossroads. That much is clear. How the party can tackle the intertwined issues of ideology, popularity, constitutional disadvantages, Thaksin’s shadows and uneasy alliance with Move Forward remains very much to be seen. To stay relevant, it will need to choose to go left or right, though, and a lot is at stake either way.

By Tulsathit Taptim

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