For Move Forward, the Stars Are Aligning

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On September 10, the Move Forward Party won a stomping victory in the byelection for Rayong’s third constituency. The MFP candidate, Phongsathorn Sornpetchnarin, won almost 60 percent of the votes cast, while the Democrat candidate, Banyat Chetanachan, won around 40 percent. 

The Move Forward victory came despite what seemed like the party’s best efforts to shoot itself in the foot in that particular constituency. The byelection was happening only because the previous Move Forward MP, newly elected in May, had resigned after it was revealed that he had a previous criminal conviction for theft: those with previous prison sentences are prohibited from running to be an MP. The following decision to run Phongsathorn in the constituency hardly improved things, for he was accused of having failed to pay income tax, although he quickly clarified that he had not made enough income to be required to file a tax return form. 

None of this was to matter though. Against the Move Forward machine, the Democrats’ three-term Banyat stood no chance. For a long time, it was said that the Democrats could send an electrical pole as a candidate in the south and still win. Now Move Forward may also be approaching ‘electrical pole’ levels of popularity. 

The note of caution any reasonable observer of Thai politics would sound, of course, is that we be wary of extrapolating too much from any byelection victory. Much depends on local circumstances, and the Democrats were hardly in good shape. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the Rayong byelection is one significant data point in demonstrating that for Move Forward, the stars have aligned.

A funny thing to say, perhaps, given that the party has just very publicly been ejected from a government coalition despite winning an election scarcely four months ago. But consider these factors.

Most importantly, Move Forward has protected itself from the nasty compromises of government, protected by the purity of opposition. A coalition with Pheu Thai was always bound to be a tiresome affair for Move Forward, with Pheu Thai constantly holding a dagger to their throats. The Move Forward image, for now, remains intact. It is Pheu Thai that has instead committed what comes awfully close to brand suicide, breaking political promise after promise, in order to form a coalition with the previous government parties.

Even worse for Pheu Thai, the timing of Thaksin Shinawatra’s return — apparently timed to coincide with the election of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin — can only have soured the Thaksin brand, on which Pheu Thai’s depends, further in the minds of a great many in the electorate. “Thaksin was treated by the police and Prayut government just like they would have done for any other ordinary prisoner who had fled imprisonment for years.” Does anyone truly believe that?

As Thais are bound to wonder: Pheu Thai? Pheu krai? Pheu Thaksin? 

The compromises that Pheu Thai have made are also likely to result in worse governance. The cabinet that Pheu Thai appointed was one that seemed entirely driven by political quotas. Even the second Prayut government, as riven as it was by the need to satisfy coalition demands, had attempted to include more nonpartisan specialists in key roles. 

Funnily enough, it was the United Thai Nation Party that ended up rescuing Pheu Thai in this regard, allowing former permanent secretary of finance Kritsada Jinavijarana to take up a position as deputy minister of finance in the UTN quota. 

Otherwise, however, Srettha appeared to have made some questionable decisions: a teacher was appointed at the Ministry of Defense, while a police commander now heads the Ministry of Education, for example. Other appointments were dubious from a political perspective: Cholanan Srikaew, having fallen on his sword to resign as Pheu Thai leader after breaking his election pledges, was given the consolation prize of… health minister. 

Meanwhile, Srettha’s policy statement signaled another monumental challenge that Pheu Thai faces: enacting the policies that Pheu Thai had campaigned on. Sirikanya Tansakul of the Move Forward Party compared Srettha’s statement to a “directionless GPS,” while Jurin Laksanawisit of the Democrats declared that Pheu Thai’s promises had become “ninja policies,” disappearing now that Pheu Thai is actually in charge. 

Whether Sirikanya and Jurin’s evaluations are accurate will be for others to judge. But one thing is for sure: Pheu Thai is still struggling with key questions about its future policies. 

Deputy Finance Minister Julapan Amornvivat was still unable to give a clear answer on how exactly the 10,000 baht handout policy will be funded. Transport Minister Suriya Juangroongrueangkit still has no clear plan for how to reduce the fares for most train lines to 20 baht as Pheu Thai promised. It is more likely than not that Pheu Thai will struggle with more than a few of its signature policies.

All of this is to the advantage of Move Forward. Purified in opposition, untainted by compromise, brand intact from the realities of governing, things are coming into place for them to capitalize at the next election, whenever it will be. 

Of course, four years is a long time. There is plenty of time for Pheu Thai to turn things around; it could be that Pheu Thai experiences an extraordinarily successful four years economically and voters forgive and forget the political shenanigans it pulled off. Move Forward could still be dissolved and a successor party may struggle to get off the ground.

But if you wanted to create the  conditions for a landslide victory for whatever progressive party runs at the next election, you could do a lot worse than what Pheu Thai has done so far. 

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