Imagine, for a moment, that you are a PR consultant for General Prawit Wongsuwan: the deputy prime minister of Thailand and leader of the Palang Pracharath Party. You are tasked with repackaging the deputy prime minister into an appealing product for the upcoming general election.
Your first instinct is probably: that sounds like an immensely difficult task. Prawit is a Dick Cheney-esque figure, whose claim to fame in the national consciousness is a bizarre wristwatch scandal. Yet in an unexpected twist in the twilight of his long career, Prawit now finds himself as a prime ministerial candidate and the face of Thailand’s main ruling party. The need for a PR makeover has now become necessary.
For decades, Prawit has been a powerful man, rising through the ranks of the army and becoming one of the most influential figures of the Eastern Tigers faction. After retiring as commander of the army, he was appointed defense minister in the Abhisit Vejjajiva cabinet, before finally becoming a key component of the “3Ps” triumvirate that has ruled Thailand since the 2014 military coup.
But despite the eight years serving as one of the most powerful figures in government, he has not developed a true popular following, known instead as more of a backroom operator. Never a man known for his eloquence, his interactions with the press has largely consisted of saying “I don’t know” to reporters. Entering the electoral arena was never the obvious move.
Yet the surprises don’t end there: the reinvention of Prawit into a people’s politician has been proceeding briskly.
Donning jeans and an eye-catching bomber jacket adorned with dragons, Prawit happily walked around a markets, accepting gifts and indulging in photos with voters.
The joyless campaigner he is not. Prawit seems to be genuinely enjoying being on the campaign trail, whether while engaging in traditional Thai dance and talking walks around Lumpini Park.
The remake of Prawit has also extended to the repackaging of him from the gruff conservative general to a born-again economic populist. Pheu Thai had gotten ahead of him by announcing that they would steadily increase the minimum wage to 600 baht. Prawit’s answer? He announced that the PPRP would raise the money available to holders of the pracharath state welfare card to 700 baht a month.
Notice, of course, that these are two very different things: Pheu Thai is referring to the daily minimum wage, while Prawit’s offer is raise the monthly allowance available to holders of his party’s eponymous redistribution program aimed at the nation’s disadvantaged. Yet the PPRP has now rebranded Prawit as “Pom 700” — not a robot codename, but to ensure that voters hear a bigger headline number than Pheu Thai’s.
Indeed, Prawit’s team has made calculated moves to change the entire narrative surrounding his story. Last month, Prawit had released an open letter on Facebook — his lack of a PR presence prior to this had been so complete that people had to take time to authenticate that Prawit’s Facebook page was even genuine — talking about his relationship with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
The premier, Prawit said, was eager for power, wishing to stay on as prime minister, while Prawit sponsored the founding of the PPRP only to support his comrade’s hopes. “I am not experienced in politics,” Prawit said — contrary to his image as the skilled backroom negotiator — “so I could only assist in government by maintaining the stability of the armed forces.”
It was quite a way to kill two birds with one stone: launch his social media presence with a splash while stealing the mantle of reluctant leader from Prayut, a reputation the prime minister himself seems to cherish. Yet this goes directly to the heart of the reinvention of Prawit: its purpose is to set him up to outcompete Prayut and his United Thai Nation Party at the upcoming general election.
And unsubtle, too, these efforts have been. Prawit seemed to delight in visiting areas that Prayut was about to visit just hours before the prime minister himself was due. For all their claims to maintain fraternal ties, the two men could not seem more estranged.
Prawit has set his hopes high at this election. One of his party’s first rallies will be held at the Pom Prab Satru Pai district. The name of the district translates to ‘Fort that Defeats Enemies.’ But the word for fort, ‘Pom’, is also Prawit’s nickname, hence the wordplay: Prawit, the unlikely frontman of his party’s campaign, will defeat all his enemies.
Ostensibly, those enemies now include his nominal superior and longstanding friend, Prayut. Will the rebranding of Prawit be enough to defeat his much more popular prime minister? Time will tell.