6 June 2024

On the surface, the sudden exit of Pheu Thai’s once-powerful chief strategist Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan was due to party infighting.

However, political analysts say her departure is part of a long-term strategy to win more seats for Pheu Thai at the next election.

Related story: The sudden fall of Sudarat, Thaksin’s right-hand woman 

Sudarat last week walked out on the main opposition party, which she joined when it was formed in 2008. Pheu Thai is an incarnation of Thai Rak Thai, which she co-founded in 1998.

Her abrupt resignation followed her decision to quit as the party’s chief strategist in September.

Other big names to quit Pheu Thai include Bhokin Bhalakul and Watana Muangsook. They were side-lined after the party got a new executive board when Sompong Amornvivat was elected as party leader in October.

Rumours say the 59-year-old Sudarat now plans to launch a new political party in a bid to achieve her goal of becoming prime minister. Analysts, however, believe her ultimate aim may be to “reunite” Pheu Thai or at least become its electoral ally.

Sudarat Keyuraphan

Sudarat’s new party could serve as an offshoot of the Pheu Thai Party, said Rangsit University political scientist Wanwichit Boonprong. He explained this was the same tactic used before last year’s general election, when the now-defunct Thai Raksa Chart Party was founded as Pheu Thai’s “branch”, with an aim of getting around the ceiling on party list seats that can be won.

Pheu Thai won the largest number of constituency seats, 136, in the March 2019 general election. But it was second-placed Palang Pracharath Party (116 seats) that formed the government after gathering MPs from small and medium-sized parties to form a House majority and then placing General Prayut Chan-o-cha at the helm.

Pheu Thai Party

Pheu Thai had been expected to win bigger, but the new electoral system prescribed in the military-backed charter was designed to hinder large parties and put the party affiliated to fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra at a disadvantage.

The new election system and party-list MP calculation saw Pheu Thai become the only contender not to win party-list MP seats, after its number of constituency MPs exceeded its share of the popular vote.

This formula became contentious after parties said the calculation may be unconstitutional because the charter and organic laws differ on the matter.

However, Pheu Thai was well aware of its consequences, so some members left the party and formed Thai Raksa Chart – much like breaking a Bt1,000 banknote into smaller bills to avoid problems. Thai Raksa Chart was among at least four parties created as proxies of Pheu Thai, the others being Pheu Tham, Pheu Chart and Prachachart.

However, Thai Raksa Chart was disbanded by a Constitutional Court ruling less than a month before the vote because it nominated Princess Ubolratana, older sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, as its prime ministerial candidate. Its leaders were also banned from politics for a decade.

Thai Raksa Chart party was disbanded back in 2019.

Wanwichit added that since the ongoing charter-change process is unlikely to alter the electoral system, Pheu Thai has little chance of gaining any party-list MP seats in the next election. Hence, it needs to adjust its strategy.

He also reckoned that the only option left for Sudarat is to create a new party, since the choice of Thaksin-affiliated parties is limited.

“Her departure was no surprise. It is just a tactic to create more allies [for Pheu Thai]. I think she will return to work with Pheu Thai in the future. It’s like a tributary that branches out before converging with the river again,” Wanwichit said.

Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, sees a similar scenario. “They split today to join together again later,” he said.

However, he believes Sudarat will not create a new party in the near future, but will instead evaluate the situation once a new election looms on the horizon.

Splintered cliques

It’s an open secret that Pheu Thai has fractured into several factions, a fact underlined by the previous exit of several key members. Sudarat is just the latest.

Yuthaporn said her walkout was triggered by internal conflicts and a struggle for dominance between factions.

He likened Sudarat’s departure to when Thaksin’s inner circle, the so-called “October People”, broke away to create a new political group called “CARE” in June this year. The inner circle comprises former Pheu Thai secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai, and former executives of the old Thai Rak Thai Party Prommin Lertsuridej and Surapong Suebwonglee.

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

In October, Pheu Thai’s leadership was overhauled after the reported intervention of Thaksin’s ex-wife Khunying Potjaman Na Pombejra. The revamp saw Sudarat stripped of her status and her close aides denied places in the executive leadership, with the exception of former party secretary-general Anudit Nakorntab. He is among the 10 deputy party leaders.

The big change also paved the way for defectors like Phumtham to return to Pheu Thai, and that meant Sudarat had to move out, Yuthaporn said.

“Pheu Thai is the type of party whose members move in and out all the time,” he added.

Sudarat’s political base is in Bangkok, but Pheu Thai will have no problem winning elections without her because its other MPs have strongholds in the provinces, said the academic.

After Sudarat quit, Pheu Thai set up a political affairs committee chaired by one of its PM candidates, Chaikasem Nitisiri, along with heavyweight politicians such as Sanoh Thienthing, chairman of the party advising committee; Viroj Pao-in, chief adviser to the party leader; and Chalerm Ubamrung, chairman of the party’s special affairs committee.

The new panel is meant to showcase Chaikasem as the party’s next leader and replace the strategy committee previously chaired by Sudarat.

The party will also launch a committee to develop electoral bases to expand its campaign from 250 constituencies to all 350 in the next election.

Analysts observe that since the Constitution does not favour Pheu Thai winning party-list MP seats, it has no option but to focus on constituency MP seats.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk