By The Nation
Thailand’s biggest political party might well be viewing the coming election as a make-or-break trial. A defeat could spell its end, for reasons obvious to every- one. However, a bigger challenge than winning the election awaits the Pheu Thai Party, and the question is how it can survive without the resources and strategic shrewdness of the Shinawatras.
The party’s situation is para- doxical. To be able to even ponder life without the Shinawatras, Pheu Thai first needs to win this election. And to win it, the party needs the Shinawatras’ help rather badly. The predicament means that, when the votes are counted, Pheu Thai might find itself needing the Shinawatras more than ever before.
For all the criticism levelled against the Democrat Party, it has the strengths necessary for long-term survival. It does not rely on any particular clan in order to function as a political force, and its leaders have been actual leaders, coming to the helm after prevailing in fierce battles for control. While most other Thai political parties heavily de- pended on founding or sponsoring families, the ups and downs ex- perienced by the Democrats came through shifts in voter sentiment, not through factors that should have mattered less.
Having relied largely on the Shinawatras, Pheu Thai has defeated the Democrats time and again. The wins, as welcome and celebrated as they were, could also be seen as a curse, because they have prevented Pheu Thai from taking a leap of faith out of fear that, without the founders’ money and popularity, the party could drastic- ally shrink. Such worries have blurred two important aspects to its existence. First, the Shinawatras cannot last forever. Secondly, they have brought and will continue to bring the party serious trouble.
It is obvious why Pheu Thai should detach itself from the Shinawatras sooner rather than later. The clan can help hold some factions together and deliver election triumphs, but they might also represent a disaster waiting to happen. Pheu Thai deserves to be reborn, no matter how difficult that would be.
Being associated with the Shinawatras has its clear positives, but one major negative is that the party will not be able to evolve naturally. The current state of affairs is proof of that. While the Democrat Party would live on even if it ends up in the opposition after this election, a loss would put Pheu Thai in jeopardy – all because it has been counting too much on just one family.
If Pheu Thai cannot manage to lead or be part of the next government, it could naturally fall apart. If it regains power, the party will have to seriously ponder its future, for its own good.
Policies related to the Shina- watras – like the infamous Amnesty Bill that triggered the street protests that paved the way for the 2014 coup – need to be bravely vetted by party members. A Pheu Thai government could not afford its measures being perceived by the electorate in the same way as the Amnesty Bill.
Pheu Thai has massive grass-roots support, an invaluable asset in politics.
It’s time the party began cultivating that beyond the shadows of the shrewd but contro- versial Shinawatras, who might not be able to guarantee the party’s healthy and sustainable growth. It could be tough at the outset, but it needs to be done.