23 May 2024

Thailand’s triangular political equilibrium rests on many things, and one of the most important foundations can be the most unpredictable.

Thaksin Shinawatra, wielding one of the country’s biggest political influences according to an opinion poll, spawns theories. The first is what “appears” to be publicly but is gaining skepticism left and right.

In the first theory, he is sincere about stepping away from politics, about giving political advice to the Pheu Thai-led government from time to time, about helping the Shinawatra grownups maintain relevance in Thai politics as long as that does not impact his devotion to the Shinawatra toddlers.

The second theory is that he unexpectedly has to be substantially more politically active than he wanted to, because of the threats posed by the Move Forward Party to Pheu Thai’s status quo. In other words, Pheu Thai is no longer the leader in the ideological half it once dominated, and Thaksin has to fix it.

This means a lot more than giving occasional advice or helping the government promote the digital wallet. Pheu Thai needs a reboot, and so far Srettha Thavisin and Paetongtarn Shinawatra do not look like they were built for the job. To win back the party’s popularity, Thaksin cannot act like the man Chuan Leekpai is to the Democrat Party.

Simply put, while Chuan is no longer the Democrats’ flagship, Thaksin has to be the real face of Pheu Thai. Yet in this second theory, it’s not that Thaksin is cunning or trickery. It’s because the brand needs him or it will die, quickly or slowly.

The third theory is pretty much like the second one, but it’s not because the brand needs him. In this one, he planned the whole thing _ his swift return from exile (the timing, while largely questioned, was actually good because the conservatives were being made to panic by Move Forward, so much so that they overcame their “fears” of him), Pheu Thai’s “betrayal” of Move Forward, digital wallet no matter what, and “Shinawatra” being Thailand’s most powerful political royalty.

A lot of people believe in this third theory, even before the Super Poll confirmed Thaksin as one of the most politically influential men in Thailand a few days ago. The poll’s findings came out amid photos of Prime Minister Srettha looking humble before Thaksin whose presence is making his own daughter Paetongtarn, leader of the Pheu Thai Party, slide into the background.

Thaksin is also a big schemer in the fourth theory, which is highly unbelievable at the moment but should not be completely discarded. This theory has Pheu Thai and Move Forward conspire to eventually neutralise the conservatives. They either may have been conspiring, or finally will conspire depending on the situation.

Backers of this theory point at the fact that the conservatives are now backpedaling and have no leading demagogues like Sondhi Limthongkul during the Thaksin government or Suthep Thaugsuban during the Yingluck administration. In short, the time is right to put the conservatives on the side for good.

However, doubters of this theory say the very fact that the conservatives could be weakened to the point of irrelevancy will make the chances of Pheu Thai and Move Forward getting reunited very slim. Whether it’s right or wrong, political tradition dictates that the two biggest parties should go separate ways, one to the government and the other to the opposition.

The doubters believe the endgame will be Move Forward and Pheu Thai fighting for the same political market themselves.

Can Thaksin turn the tide for Pheu Thai amid Move Forward’s surge? To his supporters, Thaksin’s strong point is the economy. Pheu Thai’s ideology only came later when he got too big, too powerful and what happened to him legally was regarded as politically controversial.

Thaksin is in fact a businessman, and this makes him more bendable than Move Forward. If the economy picks up and the grass-roots benefit, whatever his true intention is, Pheu Thai will reap gains.

On the contrary, if things turn sour like the police issue worsening or the digital wallet causing financial or political pains, they will amplify Pheu Thai’s problems.

One thing is for sure. His political exile was more straightforward. He led one half of Thailand and the other half wanted him gone, through court cases that some might consider certain corruption whereas the others saw political persecution in them.

Of the four theories, the first was the least complicated. In the second, he would have to do just enough to make Pheu Thai regain popularity and not anger the conservatives in the process. As for the third, he will have to infuriate the conservatives, who have some legal trump cards in their hands, to achieve his goal.

The fourth can be the most difficult. Doing too little will help Move Forward but not his party and doing too much may prompt the conservatives to torpedo the grand plan. A misstep can also ruin both parties.

There probably is the fifth theory, in which Thaksin’s plan is no plan and he is playing it by ear. This could make the agent of chaos function in the most unpredictable mode ever.

By Tulsathit Taptim