By The Nation
A man’s utmost challenge normally comes from the inside. This is why the real test facing Thaksin Shinawatra is probably not whether voters prefer life under military-backed Prayut Chan-o-cha, but whether defections that have rocked Thaksin’s de facto party, Pheu Thai, were enough to weaken his virtual stranglehold on Thai politics.
Big-name defectors from Pheu Thai will be out to defy the belief that anyone sporting the Pheu Thai insignia would be elected in the constituencies dominated by the party. The notion has been largely proven true, with Pheu Thai defectors snubbed at the polls, especially in the Northeast, beaten by new faces whose only strength was the Pheu Thai logo on their posters and billboards.
The coming election, however, will surely test the assumption that, if the party presented a utility pole as its candidate where Thaksin remains popular, it would still win handily.
The “Three Friends” group includes several former strongmen from the Pheu Thai/Thai Rak Thai ranks. Since the group has made little secret of its desire to keep Thaksin at arm’s length politically, it will have to prove that non-Thaksin-aligned candidates can win in former Thaksin strongholds.
The group – led by Somsak Thepsuthin, Suriya Jungrungreangkit and Somkid Jatusripitak, all of whom played prominent roles in pro-Thaksin governments – has been accused of receiving preferential treatment from the military. It subsequently toned down its public activities, but the criticism itself seems to reflect concern that the Shinawatra influence might not be enough to help Pheu Thai sweep the 2019 election.
The attraction of the Three Friends will test the country’s political demography. A long-standing myth has it that rural people elect governments only for city people to topple them. That myth stemmed specifically from the downfalls of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and Banharn Silpa-archa, whose governments were made up primarily of upcountry politicians. Thaksin was initially popular among Bangkokians and other urbanites, but charges of corruption, allegedly populist policies and successful attempts to bring many local politicians into his fold shifted his political base to rural areas. Many current politicians supporting Thaksin used to be under the banners of other parties.
The political divide cemented the bitter urban-rural situation. Poor northeasterners descended on Bangkok in 2010 to stage a massive, encamped protest after the state seized Thaksin’s wealth. The protest was plagued with violence, including bomb explosions that killed bystanders, the invasion of a hospital, a fatal crackdown by security forces and an arson attack on Central World.
A few years later, anti-Thaksin people staged an even bigger demonstration in the capital. Roads were blocked but there was less violence, although bombs also exploded at rally sites, killing a few people. Then-Army chief Prayut said the fatalities could have mounted had he not seized power and assumed the role of interim prime minister.
If the Three Friends group succeeds in prolonging Prayut’s control over politics, it can mock the political divide in a way. The next election will be an intriguing battle, because it may provide a damning answer on whether ideology really drives Thai politics or has largely been used as a smokescreen.
Already, doubts are growing as to whether most politicians are ideologically motivated. Changing camps is common and the forming of the Three Friends group and what it does in the future could amplify the ideological mystery.