15 June 2024

The most lethal weapon has to be able to fly under the radar and pack a big punch. Chaithawat Tulathon is better than other candidates for the Move Forward Party’s helm in that regard, after Pita Limjaroenrat followed Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit into the parallel world of Thai politics. 

Most importantly, Move Forward needs a “statement” leadership after Pita. The likes of Sirikanya Tansakul might be able to compete with Chaithawat on every front but ideology. The biggest party thrives on ideological extremism and it will not want to dilute that image anytime soon. Chaithawat’s appointment would send a strong message loud and clear. 

Move Forward is running out of ideological choices when the legitimate leadership is concerned. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Sangkanokkul have been stuck in political limbo that will last for a while. Pannika Wanich has even suffered a far-greater blow, while Pita has bowed out because his political future is hanging in the balance. 

Chaithawat, 44, is a hot favourite because his revolutionary political ideology is said to be stronger than most in Move Forward. His name was in fact running neck and neck Pita’s when Future Forward was reincarnating as Move Forward.  

Chaithawat and Thanathorn reportedly worked together during their student activism days. Student activists during the period, it has been noted, came to embrace the capitalism ideology and became affluent. Their wealth has been used partly normally and partly to advocate an old political principle of “everyone is equal”, which many may find ironic. 

(Chaithawat grew up when student activists no longer demonised capitalism, something opposite to the older generation which explains why street protesters of old were closer to Marxism or communism.) 

Chaithawat’s political ideas have been seen in glimpses here and there in interviews which took place when he was overshadowed by the likes of Thanathorn and Piyabutr. One thing that might suggest extremist instincts is his insistence that his political party would not be relying on rhetoric or political marketing. “Success” in his opinion was defined by real changes, he declared. 

“You can’t succeed through marketing in politics,” he once said. “You have to really believe your belief in order to succeed.” It was an idealistic statement, whose real tests will come when he arrives in a world where “political success” equals government positions and financial power. 

Move Forward’s closest rival, Pheu Thai, meanwhile, is undergoing a leadership change of its own. Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of convicted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said this week that she was ready to become the leader of the Pheu Thai party, if that was the wish of party members. It could just be a polite statement because it’s far easier said than done. 

Pheu Thai’s situation is a lot more complicated than Move Forward’s. While the latter can freely send out a message of defiance, the former is restricted by its reluctant partnership with many. The second-biggest party can never know what kind of message Paetongtarn’s appointment will give out. Another important thing to consider is business and constitutional complications she will have to go through if she agrees to play parliamentary politics full-time. 

Pheu Thai is now in an unknown and absolutely treacherous territory. The new leadership will shed some light on whether the “reconciliation” talks are for real or whether they were just born out of expediency. The worst part is that even if Pheu Thai comes up with a sincere leadership designed to push the nation forward, he or she can easily be still perceived as a Thaksin proxy. 

One more thing that Move Forward and Pheu Thai have to keep in mind while restructuring their leaderships is the legal and constitutional impact of party dissolution. Other parties do not have to worry about this, but the two can ignore it at their own peril. 

The Democrats, for example, will not concern themselves with party dissolution while putting together a new leadership. Yet their current efforts to find a new leader look like a rearguard battle rather than an all-out offensive. And after Abhisit Vejjajiva and Jurin Laksanawisit, the Democrats, too, are running out of good options.  

So, Thailand has one party trying to keep its identity in a bustling market, another seeking to hold onto a huge market that is under threat, and yet another attempting to remain relevant in a market that has shrunk beyond imagination. 

Their new leaders, legitimate or nominal, will say a lot about their ambitions or lack thereof, strengths and weaknesses.  

Tulsathit Taptim