A shadow looms large over the Pheu Thai Party

Thaksin’s shadow leaves Pheu Thai in a conundrum, writes Ken Lohatepanont. His promise of a return further complicates Pheu Thai’s candidacy and potentially deepends divides.

“It is a kindness,” the Roman poet Ovid once wrote, “that the mind can go where it wishes.” Exiled from Italy to a port city on the black sea, the deeply homesick poet wrote a series of letters lamenting his fate to his friends. 

Thaksin Shinawatra, in his self-imposed exile of many years, does not need to write letters. Fortunately for him, the modern world offers him far more convenient options: the direct video links to red shirt rallies in the early years of his exile, or more recently the Clubhouse conversations under the Tony Woodsome pseudonym. And even as he holds court from Dubai, as his mind wanders back home, he finds no difficulty in manifesting himself virtually.

The traveling mind, however, is no substitute for a real return. Everybody in Thai politics knows that Thaksin has one overriding desire: to return home, preferably without any fear of arrest and imprisonment. Even the most amateur of psychologists can parse out as much from his frequent promises that this is the year he finally makes it back. Indeed, his desperation is evident from his singleminded — indeed ruthless — attempts to return his Pheu Thai party to power, so that from the commanding heights of government it can pave the way for a hero’s welcome.

“The gods favor the bold,” Ovid also wrote: and so Thaksin’s designs have always been. The Amnesty Bill was breathtaking in its audacity and momentous in its failure; his 2019 gambit with the Thai Raksa Chart Party was also spectacular both in its conception and its implosion. And now, with another general election again approaching, the stage is once again set for more bold — and dare we say rash? — Thaksinite maneuvers.

Thaksin’s gameplan this election seemed relatively clear cut. The party would run two prime ministerial candidates, his own daughter Paethongtarn Shinawatra and the land estate magnate Srettha Thavisin. To run his own blood twelve years after running his sister — and seeing her, too, driven to fugitivity — is in itself a bold move, as sure to appeal to the base as it does to electrify his enemies. And as it has done in every single general election since 2001, a Thaksinite party would once again win the most seats.  

To cement his parliamentary strength, however, Thaksin would need allies. The Move Forward Party is a potential partner, but he has also long cultivated his ties with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, the triumvir most affable with politicians and most fond for dealmaking. His relationship with Prawit has had ups and downs — a few years ago Thaksin openly mocked Prawit for sweetly begging to be promoted to army commander during his premiership — but by and large their relationship would appear to be functional.

Significantly, Pheu Thai spared Prawit from a no confidence motion, and rumors have often swirled of the possibility that Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharath could join hands after the election to form a governing coalition. Such a government would not guarantee Thaksin’s return, but it would represent the best shot at easing the way for such a thing to happen.

How strange it is, then, that Thaksin tried to verbally torpedo that prospect in a recent online talk. “I vow that I will return, but without passing legislation, and without negotiating with Palang Pracharath,” he said. He is self-made, Thaksin said, and he can help himself. 

Why say such a thing, when it strains the imagination to believe he would ever entirely rule out the exact arrangement that promises to bring him what he wants most? It could be pride. But perhaps it is because he knows that his Pheu Thai base has no real reason to be entirely enthusiastic about Pheu Thai joining hands with Palang Pracharath and even potentially letting Prawit become the prime minister. 

On this issue, Thaksin faces a credibility deficit. 

That was the first conundrum that Thaksin left for Pheu Thai: throwing into doubt the parliamentary arithmetic with the 250-strong Senate, which means that the best shot at power for the party remains a partnership with its erstwhile foe. 

Indeed, in his overriding goal to come home, one can sometimes wonder whether at times Thaksin represents more of a liability than an asset to Pheu Thai when it comes to winning voters outside its loyal base. At the same talk, Thaksin said that Paethongtarn would be the one who would announce when he is returning. 

It appeared to be an unwelcome distraction for his own daughter, who had to tell reporters that her only goal at the moment is materializing a Pheu Thai landslide. Yet Thaksin himself seemed to be doing his level best to disrupt that landslide. 

He also said that “fans who like extreme politics should go to the Move Forward Party, while those who want to focus on bread-and-butter issues and a democracy that is suitable for Thailand should come to Pheu Thai.” An interesting phrase, no doubt: “a democracy that is suitable for Thailand” is the sort of phrase that raises many questions about what the speaker thinks of as a suitable democracy. For a party that has tried to paint itself as a pro-democracy choice, the choice of words here was not helpful. 

At the 2011 general election, the Pheu Thai Party had run on the slogan “Thaksin thinks and Pheu Thai acts.” It was meant to be a motivating slogan: from abroad Thaksin would continue coming up with innovative policies like the ones that characterized his own administration, while his sister, Yingluck, would execute them.

Unfortunately for the party, when Thaksin’s mind is fixated on coming home, voters have the right to ask what, exactly, the party will then need to execute. He has already saddled the party with a prime ministerial candidate whose last name alone promises to intensify the deep divisions in politics, and whose lack of experience raises legitimate questions about her qualifications for the top job. By implying that she is a mere herald for his return, he simply cements the image of the Pheu Thai Party as a family affair dedicated to the Shinawatras’ interests. 

The fact that this is Thailand’s largest political party, best-poised to displace the current government, is worrying indeed. 


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