Pheu Thai must fix internal rifts
'Cobras", a term referring to Thai MPs who usually vote in parliament against their party line, reared their ugly heads and hissed on Saturday night during the vote on the government's 3.2-trillion-baht-budget bill for the 2020 fiscal year.
The bill sailed through in its third reading of the House by 253:0 votes, with 196 abstentions from the opposition and one MP who did not vote. There were seven "cobras" among the 253 bill supporters -- five from the half-hearted opposition party, New Economics, and one each from Pheu Thai and Prachachart.
All this should come as no surprise since the opposition lacks a strong leader and the core opposition party itself, Pheu Thai, is fragmented after the Shinawatra family distanced itself, leaving a vacuum that no one in the party has the leadership or capability to fill.
The infighting surfaced this month when a rumour went wild that Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, the party's chief strategist, had packed up her belongings at the head office and quit.
Although trusted by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the de facto leader of Pheu Thai, Khunying Sudarat is not widely respected by the party's MPs, particularly Chalerm Ubumrung who was recently named head of the party's special operations committee to draw up the strategy for the forthcoming censure debate against the government.
Khunying Sudarat and Mr Chalerm are not on speaking terms and Mr Chalerm's appointment by the party to play a key role in the censure debate has been seen as a move to counter the influence of Khunying Sudarat.
The rumour was denied by Khunying Sudarat, who complained it was a dirty trick by someone in the party to discredit her. Nevertheless, she was also blamed for the party's defeat in the recent Khon Kaen by-election by a Palang Pracharath electoral candidate.
Pheu Thai has also lost several core members, among them former party leader Chaturon Chaisang, Weng Tojirakarn, Nattawut Saikuar, former foreign minister Noppadon Pattama and former energy minister Pichai Naripthaphan. These former Pheu Thai members quit the party en masse to join a new party, Thai Raksa Chart, under Thaksin's initiative of "splitting a 1,000-baht banknote into several smaller-denomination notes" -- a strategy to capitalise on the new election system that enabled medium-sized and small parties to gain more party-list MP seats than big parties -- aiming to defeat the Palang Pracharath Party in the March 24 election.
Thai Raksa Chart was dissolved by the Constitutional Court before the election after it was found to be in the wrong for dragging a member of the royal family into politics. As a result, all key former Pheu Thai members in Thai Raksa Chart missed the bus to get elected.
Last week, Samart Kaewmeechai, a deputy leader and executive committee member of Pheu Thai, quit the party after more than 20 years, claiming his presence was useless as he could not do anything beneficial for the party.
The lack of unit in the opposition will be further weakened if the Future Forward Party (FFP), the second-largest opposition party after Pheu Thai, is disbanded by the Constitutional Court over an allegation of opposing the constitutional monarchy. Speculation has been rife that the party is unlikely to escape dissolution. Worse, the FFP's executive committee, its leader and secretary-general may be banned for politics for up to 10 years.
A weak opposition will be a boon by the government, but certainly not a good thing for the public who want to see a strong and functional opposition to perform its checks-and-balances role in parliament.
The Pheu Thai Party needs to set aside its internal problems and shape up in order to do its job more effectively and professionally. We simply cannot let the government enjoy a free ride without someone watching as its predecessor did five years ago, given the many megaprojects worth mega-billions of baht being implemented.
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.