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Banking on a Shinawatra revival – Pheu Thai kicks off their 2023 election campaign

No surprise, despite some conservative media painting it as a shock political move.

The official announcement of Paethongtan Shinawatra’s role at in the Pheu Thai election machine as “chief adviser in participation and innovation” has been spoken about for the past month. The return of a ‘Shinawatra’ – the former fugitive PM’s youngest daughter no less – will re-focus additional attention on the leading opposition party.

Whilst it will garner additional support from their loyal party base, in the north east along with agricultural and working communities around the country, the announcement will give the conservative forces a larger target in the upcoming year of electioneering and postur

Whilst there has been calls for an early election, as Thailand emerges from 6 months of pandemic-induced miasma, the PM Prayut Chan-o-cha is under no obligation to call an election until 2023.

Despite a few large holes appearing in the good-ship ‘Palang Pracaharat’ over the past year, the crew have been busy below decks plugging up the larger leaks. Recently the party had to publicly polish over the rift caused by the one-time prison guest, courtesy of the Australian Government, of deputy Agricultural minister and party secretary Thammanat Prompao.

His alleged internal coup, gathering votes of Palang Pracharat MPs during the recent no confidence debate for the PM in parliament, did not go down well with Prayut who demanded his head on a plate. In the end the PMs loyal stalwart, the 76 year old deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan, convinced the party to keep the loose-cannon Thammanat as the party Secretary General

Thammanat’s roles as ‘fixer’ in Palang Pracharat, is a similar role that Thaksin’s daughter will now fulfil in the leading opposition party.

But the maths are quite simple, barring any huge swings one way or the other, for the next election. The two main opposition parties – Pheu Thai and Move Forward – will garner a clear majority with Palang Pracharat struggling to get over the 25% mark.

A usually-reliable Suan Dusit poll was published last week. The results were quite clear…

WHAT POLITICAL PARTY WOULD WIN THE MOST MPS IN THE ELECTION?

• 33% – Pheu Thai Party.

• 25% – Move Forward Party.

• 25% – Palang Pracharath Party.

• 6% – Democrat Party.

• 4% – Bhumjaithai Party.

The top two parties are the current opposition parties. The bottom three are the backbone of the current government coalition.

WHO DO YOU WANT TO BE PRIME MINISTER IF THERE WAS A NEW VOTE?

• 29% – Pita Limjaroenrat (current leader Move Forward Party)

• 21% – Prayut Chan-o-cha (Current PM and Palang Pracharat prime ministerial candidate)

• 19% – Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan (Pheu Thai former party leader)

• 9% – Abhisit Vejjajiva (Democrats)

• 6% – Khunying Pojaman Damapong (ex.wife of Thaksin Shinawatra)

Most pundits believe the re-entry of the Shinawatra name into the election cycle will mostly serve to bolster the opposition forces, although most doubt she is a knock-out blow for the current coalition. Indeed she will act as a new punching bag for the government as they spend the next 12 months figuring out their re-election strategy.

The Pheu Thai, the party of the former PM Yingluck Shinawatra, has been out of power since the military coup in May 2014. Paethongtan Shinawatra’s addition to the party machinery is a solid indication that there is a concerted effort by Pheu Thai to win the next election (even though they won, by far, with the most standing MPs in the 2019 general election).

The Pheu Thai leadership obviously sees the Thaksin brand as useful in winning the lower house of the Thai Parliament.

But the opposition will not only need to pass the mathematical “50% plus 1” milestone to win the next election. It will need to win big. The Senate of the Thai Parliament is still a group of 250 handpicked senators, mostly ex-army affiliates and FOPs (friends of Prayut). If no party is able to garner a majority in the lower house, then a combined sitting of the lower and upper house can vote for a prime minister, including an ‘outside’ person who did not stand as an M

The current prime minister of Thailand was handed the top job using exactly that quirk in the Constitution – although leader of the Military coup and governing NCPO, Prayut never stood for office and has never been elected by the Thai people.

So Paethongtan Shinawatra’s role becomes even more important as a vanguard for opposition forces to counter Thailand’s conservative, military and ‘elite’ forces that have woven the 2017 Thai Constitution to make it difficult for opposition parties to regain control of the lower house.

Each party needs to nominate a prime ministerial candidate in the lead up to the next election. Are Pheu Thai using her new role heading up their election strategy to see if she has more general support as a possible PM candidate?

Although unlikely to admit it, Paethongtan will certainly become one the Pheu Thai’s three PM candidates if that’s what her father Thaksin desires. Although heading into self-exile in 2008, Thaksin still wields tremendous power in Thai political life and, particularly, Pheu Thai.

Though many modern party members will be happy to put the memory of Thaksin into the Pheu Thai trophy cabinet, Paethongtan Shinawatra will either garner a renewed support for the Shinawatra clan or fail to ignite much enthusiasm.

We will see.

In the meantime, with the worst of the third wave of Covid in Thailand’s rear-view mirror, the always-colourful Thai politics will move back onto the front page of the country’s newspapers. Be assured, the election campaign has already started.

Tim Newton

Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2011. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for 42 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program (public radio Australia), presented over 11,000 radio news bulletins, 3,950 in Thailand alone, hosted 1050 daily TV news programs and produced 2,100 videos, TV commercials and documentaries. He also reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and other major stories in Thailand.