6 June 2024

Amid the ongoing political impasse in the country, made murkier by highly debatable rules, Srettha Thavisin, a property developer-turned politician, is within sight of becoming the 30th prime minister of Thailand. The spotlight, as of now, shines on this Pheu Thai aspirant for the top job.

Who is Srettha? 

Srettha, 60, is one of Pheu Thai Party’s three candidates for prime minister. A relative newcomer in politics, Srettha is the former president and chief executive of Thailand’s leading real estate developer, Sansiri Plc. Though he is new to the world of politics, he was known even earlier for his outspoken views about government policies, social issues and political matters.

Born on February 15, 1963, Srettha received a Master’s in Business Administration from Claremont Graduate University in the US. He began his career as an assistant product manager at consumer goods giant P&G Thailand before shifting to the real estate sector.

He is married to Dr Pakpilai Thavisin, a specialist in anti-aging medicine. They have three children.

Srettha has been with Sansiri since its birth in 1994, serving as a director in its multiple subsidiaries. The company went public in November 1995 and was listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand in July 1996.

Sansiri is now one of Thailand’s largest property developers, with revenue of 29.7 billion baht and profit of over 2 billion baht last year. It has developed more than 400 projects in 20 provinces across the country.

Entry into politics 

Srettha became an advisory chairman of the Pheu Thai family in March this year and a month later, he resigned from Sansiri to formally join the Pheu Thai Party.

Srettha, among Pheu Thai leaders, played an important role during the election campaign in the run-up to the May 14 general election. Srettha and his friends had aimed for a landslide victory in the election, but the eventual result threw up a surprise. Pheu Thai not only failed to achieve its goal of a landslide victory, but had to contend with finishing second behind Move Forward Party. Political experts pointed to its wavering political stance during the election campaign for its indifferent performance.

During the campaign, Srettha and other Pheu Thai leaders were ambiguous in their stance on forming the government. Move Forward, for instance, made it clear right from the beginning that it would not join hands with the United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath parties, both of which are led by former junta leaders.

Before the election, Pheu Thai had the confidence that it would get a clear majority and be the leader in forming the new government. Many opinion polls also put the party well ahead of their rivals. But the election results were a disappointment for the party leadership.

Pheu Thai won only 141 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives, while Move Forward emerged as the biggest party in the lower House with 151 seats. Srettha’s chances of becoming the prime minister became dim as Move Forward became the leader of an eight-party alliance that included Pheu Thai. Move Forward pushed for its leader Pita Limjaroengrat to be the coalition’s candidate for the prime minister’s post.

A controversial stipulation in the 2017 Constitution that gives 250 unelected senators the right to vote in the parliamentary election for prime minister, however, upset the Move Forward apple cart. Despite Pita and his alliance having a clear majority with 312 MPs in the lower House, it was not enough for Pita to become the PM. The majority of senators, appointed by the former junta, blocked Pita so he could not get the 375 votes needed from 749 members of the two chambers. One senator had resigned just a day before July 13, when the first round of voting for the PM was held.

Next vote on new Thai PM could be on August 18th or 19th

Revival of Srettha’s chances

The Move Forward-led coalition, once again submitted Pita’s candidature in the second round, but this time the majority of parliamentarians rejected Pita, citing a rule on parliamentary meeting that bars resubmission of the same motion in the same session.

It took these turn of events to revive Srettha’s chances.

Once Pheu Thai found its alliance with Move Forward was proving a stumbling block, it exited the coalition and scrapped their memorandum of understanding. The party has announced Srettha as its candidate for prime minister.

Originally, Parliament was due to vote for the PM on August 4. But the joint session of the two Houses had to be adjourned after the Constitutional Court said that it would decide on August16 whether to accept for hearing a petition that questions the legality of Parliament’s vote to prevent Pita’s renomination in the second round.

Many political observers have now warned that Srettha might also be rejected by the senators, or his party may withdraw his nomination, after he got mired in allegations of wrongdoing. Political activist Chuwit Kamolvisit claims that Srettha and Sansiri colluded with landowners to evade 521 million baht in taxes. Chuwit has forwarded the case to the Revenue Department for investigation.

Sansiri and Pheu Thai have defended Srettha, saying he was not involved in any wrongdoing.

Lese majeste law 

Some senators have also questioned Srettha’s stance on the contentious issue of amending the lese majeste law, one of the main arguments advanced against Pita’s candidacy. Pheu Thai leaders have been seen by some people as having an ambiguous stance on the issue. Srettha clarified that he would not support any proposal to amend the law. Other Pheu Thai leaders have also said that the party would not amend the law.

Srettha’s chances of becoming the next prime minister are far from clear in this fluid political situation. Many political observers are of the view that the senators appointed by outgoing PM General Prayut Chan-o-cha, and deputy PM General Prawit Wongsuwan, may prefer to appoint Prawit, who is also the leader of the Palang Pracharath Party, as PM.

The Thaksin factor

They believe that Pheu Thai might yield to pressure from its new coalition partners and senators to give the PM’s post to Prawit or Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of Bhumjaithai Party, in exchange for a deal that would allow convicted ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, widely seen as the de facto leader of Pheu Thai, to return home from exile and be pardoned his jail terms for past convictions in corruption cases.

Thaksin had late in July announced his return to Thailand on August 10 after more than 15 years in exile. But on Saturday, Thaksin announced a delay in his return, citing a medical check-up .

Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a scholar of law specializing in public law at Thammasat University, says the delay in government formation pending a ruling by the Constitutional Court, has weakened Pheu Thai’s bargaining power. If it fails to manage events and negotiations carefully, it could lose the PM position to other parties.

“The party is also facing a crisis of public confidence,” after it ended its alliance with Move Forward, said Prinya. He was referring to the party being severely criticized for planning to form a government with the members of the outgoing coalition government who had been rejected by voters in the May 14 elections. Many voters view the party’s actions as a betrayal of the public mandate.

Many observers have warned that the party’s credibility could seriously erode if Pheu Thai invited United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath to join the coalition. It would be seen as an opportunistic about-turn, as Srettha and other Pheu Thai leaders, during the election campaigns, had ruled out any alliance with those parties.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk