Thaksin crossing into new territories

That Thaksin Shinawatra will not hold his birthday party this year could have been dismissed as immaterial, but for the fact that there are other intriguing “signals” as well. The Pheu Thai Party, for the first time, is having a leadership structure that is not focused entirely on his clan; his key strategists seem to be retreating from view; and those who strategically left to join the now-dissolved Thai Raksa Chart Party have not returned.

All point toward what has become the political question of the hour: Is Thaksin washing his hand of Pheu Thai, or even politics entirely?

Apart from the aforementioned “signs”, there is the mammoth issue of constitutional amendment, which will be harder for pro-change politicians to push for if he is seen as pulling the strings. And yet there is something else as well: the next Bangkok gubernatorial election, in which a Pheu Thai candidate will benefit more from his “absence” than “presence”.

Political watchers and Pheu Thai insiders have been split between whether Thaksin has had enough and whether he does not, in which case all the talks and signals about “retirement” were simply a smokescreen, designed to facilitate either the setting up of a new party or a drive to amend the charter and boost Pheu Thai’s gubernatorial candidate, or all of these combined.

Those believing Thaksin is genuinely tired of costly political fights that are extremely difficult to win look at the rock-solid constitutional guards being imposed against political revitalization of his family. They think it makes sense for him to embrace real and wealthy peace along with the people he loves, even if he has to do that overseas.

Those not buying the “retirement” theory insist that Thaksin has a lot left in his political tank. They say it is possible that he will leave Pheu Thai to Sudarat Keyuraphan, whose influences in the party are rising although the new party leader, Sompong Amornwiwat, is closer to Thaksin’s younger sister Yaowapa Wongsawat than her. However, this group of political watchers and party insiders believe that Thaksin still has plenty of political fire in his belly, and he is on the verge of unleashing it through another medium.

Here are the “benefits” if Thaksin is to set up a new party: Pheu Thai is too big and awkward to rebrand, and threats of the tech-savvy Future Forward Party becoming a bigger appeal to the younger generation are real; a charter amendment push will weaken his key enemy considerably, provided he is seen as being “out of the picture”; and Pheu Thai’s gubernatorial candidate is unlikely to suffer the same fate as Pongsapat Pongcharoen, the party’s runner in 2013 who led popularity polls until the last three days when he eventually succumbed to what was perceived as Bangkok voters’ fear of Thaksin.

Chadchart Sittipunt is tipped as a Pheu Thai Bangkok gubernatorial candidate this time. Like Pongsapat before him, he is leading initial popularity polls by miles.

Has Thaksin decided to cut his “losses”? Or is he simply undertaking the shrewdest political maneuvering of his life? Either way, his enemy using constitutional rules to keep him at arm’s length and Bangkok voters will be asked the same question: “What are you afraid of now?”


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