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FRIDAY, October 07, 2022
Surprise, surprise! Pheu Thai needs a new leader

Surprise, surprise! Pheu Thai needs a new leader

TUESDAY, October 24, 2017

Thailand’s biggest political party has begun its cyclical search for a new leader.

The difference this time, though, is it’s running out of options. “Outsider” candidates are put off by what happened to the late Samak Sundaravej, while those close to the Shinawatras or even bearing the clan’s name are downright apprehensive.
Analysts, especially those leaning towards Pheu Thai, may ask what the point is. After all, the party can win the next election regardless of who is at the helm, they say. That could be true, but even more certain is that the winning candidate will be someone with Thaksin Shinawatra’s blessing.
The ultimate question, therefore, is not who will lead the party next, but whether Thaksin still possesses the same political fire in his belly. The downfall of his sister, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, has divided observers. One camp predicts falling financial support from Dubai for Pheu Thai, which is certain to have its legislative power curbed in government – something Thaksin will not like. The other camp, meanwhile, reckons there is a good chance the “deeply wounded animal” will go for broke.
This is why the new Pheu Thai leadership could be significant. A belligerent figurehead would confirm the latter theory, of a vengeful and popular politician in exile with little to lose, while a more accommodating or “friendly” leadership may signal a shift in Thaksin’s attitude.
Sudarat Keyuraphan, who is seen as a leading candidate and is apparently first off the blocks in the race, falls into the “friendly” category. She is a veteran politician, not someone thrust into the limelight like Yingluck, and she has a considerable following in Bangkok, where anti-Pheu Thai sentiment has been strong over the past few years.
Her other strengths include a sellable “iron lady” image, like Yingluck’s, and a perceived contrasting ability to reach out to Pheu Thai’s traditional enemies. But her Bangkok connection may be both an asset and a liability. Northern and Northeastern Pheu Thai factions don’t rate her that highly, and will question what she’s done to earn leadership given that they, not her, were responsible for the party’s sweeping electoral victories.
Another candidate is Chaturon Chaisaeng, who could be touted as a pro-democracy fighter. But while he might appear more outspoken against “enemies” than Sudarat, most Pheu Thai members do not consider him “very daring”. And like Sudarat, the faction of politicians loyal to him is not large, meaning his appointment as leader would risk triggering resentment among the more powerful factions.
However, anointment by Thaksin could help the likes of Sudarat or Chaturon overcome envy or other internal problems. The exiled patriarch has so far been silent on the new party helm, though that is nothing new. His political camp has often left it very late before naming a leader. This time, with new requirements that the party leader and the first name on the party list must be the same person, meaning the leader is effectively candidate for prime minister, the secrecy and caution will likely double.
Another “safe” choice would be Phongthep Thepkanjana, a fresh face whose name pops up along with Sudarat’s and Chaturon’s every time Pheu Thai talks about a possible new leader. Whether Phongthep is a “sexy” option is debatable, but, having said that, how many of us can name the current “acting” leader of Pheu Thai? Loyalists don’t care who the nominees are, so to speak, as long as they know Thaksin remains firmly behind the party.
Other candidates include legal ace Bhokin Bhalakula, former justice minister Chaikasem Nitisiri, and Monthathip Kovitcharoenkul, the businesswoman formerly known as Yaowaman Shinawatra. Monthathip has recently ruled out playing politics, but a lot of people doubt that the choice is entirely hers to make.
Winning the next election would give Pheu Thai international boasting rights, which it has had before. Thaksin must have wanted some concrete returns from that high status, evidenced most notably in the party’s push for the infamous “amnesty bill”, which turned out to be the downfall of the Yingluck government.
Another move of similar audacity looks out of the question after the next election. A Pheu Thai administration that can no longer go on an outright legislative offensive prompts the intriguing question of what Thaksin will be thinking.
Whoever eventually does take the party hot seat will face very different difficulties from those that beset Samak, Somchai Wongsawat and Yingluck. Whether the difficulties this time will include Thaksin remains to be seen.