Treacherous path of Paetongtarn
A Facebook post by an anti-government activist may have gone largely unnoticed but it asks a highly-relevant question: What does the political rise of Thaksin Shinawatra’s youngest daughter say about Chaturon Chaisaeng, a key ideological man of the rebellious side of Thai politics whose prospects of becoming a prime ministerial candidate have been dimmed by her arrival at the scene?
That very question concerns the immediate future of Thai politics. There is, however, a related question as well, and this one has to do with Paetongtarn Shinawatra herself. What about her future?
Pheu Thai obviously is aware of all the sensitive aspects, and its “Family” concept that was crafted for the 35-year-old woman’s big show a few days ago spoke volumes.
The party is trapped between a rock and a hard place. Paetongtarn, with her gender and age, is apparently a sexier choice than Chaturon, in addition to “blood being thicker than water” that settled the Yingluck Shinawatra-versus-Sudarat Keyuraphan question many years ago. But on the other hand, in a politically cut-throat environment, being perceived as extremists is a double-edged sword, and several signs have shown that the Pheu Thai Party also realizes this.
The “Pheu Thai family” concept is a shrewd, albeit unavoidable, marketing strategy that seeks to promote a new product without getting too much in skeptical people’s faces. The biggest opposition camp wants to soften the impact of another Shinawatra joining the fray. Instead of Pheu Thai’s members and supporters planning to bring Thaksin Shinawatra home through another Shinawatra, the promoted agenda is that the party wants to make Thailand one big family where love and care prevail and win over everything.
The party may be quietly trying to revive the Red Shirt village project, which was all but nullified after the Prayut coup. But it is also trying to stay away from the fundamental clash that is burning the bridges between the Move Forward Party and the other side. To an extent, the “Pheu Thai family” program is a way of saying “You can be open with us and not rankle the authorities.”
Pheu Thai has been taunted for its simultaneous “fighting and kowtowing” but the party may be allegedly doing so for good reasons. The “family” approach promises more of the same. Yes, we were involved in a serious and bloody political strife in the recent past. Yes, we are on the opposite side of the status quo. But no, we aren’t tearing down the country’s intricate political structure.
It remains to be seen how well the “family” concept will work, though. After all, while Move Forward is perceived as being relatively more aggressive against the establishment, the real difference is “only just”. Move Forward has practically blurred Pheu Thai’s contentious past by helping drown out Thaksin’s controversial ceremony at the Emerald Buddha Temple many years back, Red Shirt leaders’ explosive remarks against the royal family during the uprising in 2010 and a few other incidents associated with the largest opposition party.
A young woman with no political experience will have to endure much suspicion in an environment that is even more volatile now than when auntyYingluck took power. The “Kong Si” (family business) allegation and the viral photo of Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew treating her with allegedly too much respect are just a tiny glimpse of what lies, ahead.
So far, two scenarios exist. The first has Pheu Thai use Paetongtarn as a magnet vote-getter and keep her safe from serious political affairs. Somebody else becomes the party’s number one prime ministerial candidate in this scenario. The second has Paetongtarn become another version of Yingluck Shinawatra, who faced massive street protests, constant taunting and scrutiny, and charges of malfeasance, and had to fly by the seat of her pants through all that
The second scenario, which Chaturon will certainly dislike, will keep Thai politics simmering, with Paetongtarn right in the middle of the hot spot because Pheu Thai gives her more than she can chew. Her strong connection with Thaksin will provide political ammunition against any key policy and Move Forward can be awkward while talking about nepotism, conflicts of interests or lopsided justice favoring the rich. The frequently-used argument asking “Can Thailand cross over Thaksin and move on?” will be killed.
Make no mistake, Pheu Thai may still win the next election without Paetongtarn and whoever becomes the prime minister will still face potentially explosive politics. But that only makes the propping up of Paetongtarn even more puzzling.
Her image as a rich kid can complicate the ideological showdown in Thailand as well. When her father arrived on the political scene decades ago, Shin Corp was his main problem. Now he will be her main problem and such a big and sticky one at that.
by Tulsathit Taptim