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Pheu Thai and the Democrats: Whose problems are nicer? 

Nov 20. 2018
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By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

Thailand’s two biggest political parties will be deserted by a large number of voters in the upcoming election. But to Pheu Thai, the loss of support will be more strategic than problematic. The Democrat Party, facing a more daunting short-term prospect, must be wishing it were in the same situation.

Pheu Thai has branched out, its politicians leaving to form new parties. This is understood to be a strategy to overcome a new constitutional rule on the rationing of lower-house seats. Smaller parties stand to reap greater benefits from the new system, since winning a substantial number of votes can translate into seats in Parliament without having to actually win in any constituency.

But the strategy to exploit the new rule requires meticulous planning, as the Pheu Thai-led camp will need to decide which party contests in which constituency. According to the plan, Pheu Thai will only field candidates in constituencies where it is certain of winning, leaving the rest for its “associates” to accumulate votes which could come in handy later.

The strategy, however, risks falling foul of the law and leading to party dissolution. This is why Pheu Thai is strongly denying any links with parties believed to be its proxies or associates. Its camp can count on the fact that the line between legal alliances and illegal conspiracies has always been blurred in politics, but the “branching-out strategy” may still leave telltale traces along the way.

The Democrat Party, meanwhile, isn’t so happy about losing a lot of voters. Its decision to retain Abhisit Vejjajiva as the leader virtually opens the door for voters who are “Thaksin haters” to leave. Abhisit has not yet guaranteed party support for junta chief and prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and those voters will likely opt for safer options like Palang Pracharat Party or the Action Coalition for Thailand Party.

The Democrats and Pheu Thai fought an uncomplicated war in 2011, with the latter emerging on top with 265 seats to 159. This time, Pheu Thai will have to share seats with the Pheu Tham, Pheu Chart, and Thai Raksa Chart parties, while the Democrats will have barely friendly fights with Palang Pracharat and the Action Coalition for Thailand.

Both camps’ supporters will be confused, but it’s clear which side will be more confounded. Voters casting their ballots for Thai Raksa Chart or Pheu Thai will at least know that they are blocking the return of Prayut. Those opting for the Democrats, meanwhile, will be uncertain over exactly what they are voting for or against.

In addition, seats won by Thai Raksa Chart will not hurt Pheu Thai – or at least not as much as wins by Palang Pracharat or the Action Coalition for Thailand will hurt the Democrats. Pheu Thai will be happy with winning fewer seats, as long as its losses are Thai Raksa Chat’s gains. The Democrat leadership will come under tough scrutiny if Thailand’s oldest party wins fewer seats than 2011.

Is it possible that both Pheu Thai and the Democrats suffer heartbreaking losses and end up in the opposition bloc? Yes, but it’s not likely. That scenario would require Palang Pracharat and the Action Coalition for Thailand to sweep a sizeable number of seats and then the on-the-fence camp of Bhumjaithai, Chart Thai Pattana and Chart Pattana parties to jump onto the pro-Prayut bandwagon, leaving the Democrats and the Pheu Thai camp in the dust.

Even in this improbable scenario, the Democrats will find themselves in a more pitiful situation, as the gains by Palang Pracharat and Action Coalition for Thailand would certainly come at their expense. While votes for Palang Pracharat or Action Coalition for Thailand cannot be deemed votes for Abhisit, votes for Thai Raksa Chat can be considered votes for Thaksin, just like votes for Pheu Thai.

Both the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties will almost certainly shrink. Voters and key members of both camps are jumping ship, albeit for different reasons and in different ways. The question is, which party will be more affected. As things stand, Pheu Thai seems to have “nicer” problems than the Democrats where “size” is concerned. Look at the bigger picture, however, and Pheu Thai appears to have more at stake.

A Democrat election failure could spell the end for Abhisit as leader, but the party would find it easier to recover than Pheu Thai. If the latter fails to regain power in the next election, the “associates” may transform themselves, leaving its own future highly doubtful. Pheu Thai has been here before, but Abhisit’s dilemma is his first.

It used to be that one side’s losses were the other’s gains, yet this election could be very different. As always, they cannot both win, but it’s possible that the two biggest parties could lose together. 

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