Cracks forming among opposition allies
Now is a turbulent time, not only for the government, which has encountered a plethora of challenges, for example the student rallies and the economic downturn, but also for the opposition bloc with regard to widening divisions between two major parties -- Pheu Thai and Move Forward -- as they compete for the leading role in the students' pro-democracy rallies.
The two parties have lately developed different stances toward charter amendment, and it appears these differences have exploded into conflict, hindering their performance as the opposition.
Move Forward, the reincarnation of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party (FFP), accuses its former ally of colluding with some top government figures. Pheu Thai, meanwhile, has counter attacked, lashing out against Move Forward's strategy of trying to make the party "superior" to others. Pheu Thai has also criticised the way Move Forward wants to win the hearts and minds of student activists at all costs.
The two parties' conflicts basically stem from two issues. Firstly, charter amendment, regarding Section 256, which stipulates the formation of a charter drafting committee which Pheu Thai previously received consent to do from the seven parties in the opposition bloc. But Move Forward later withdrew from the list as it also wants to disable the Senate, cutting off its PM appointment powers.
But Pheu Thai thinks it's better not to do anything against the Senate now, and leave the matter to the charter drafting panel which will soon be formed. This is because Pheu Thai has insisted the charter amendment mission also needs support from the Senate as stated in the 2017 charter, which stipulates changes require at least one-third of the Senate or a minimum of 84 votes.
Move Forward's tough game will only lead to failure, the older party insisted.
Moreover, distrust has surged repeatedly between the two opposition parties. Move Forward is not comfortable with Pheu Thai's call for a general House debate on the current economic contraction and anti-government rallies since the latter had already done so without prior consultation with other parties. Move Forward also suspects such a move could be a tactic to allow Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, whose popularity is nosediving, to use a parliamentary mechanism to whitewash himself.
The cracks are not unprecedented, though. The two parties exchanged punches during a no-confidence session last year when the then FFP alleged that Pheu Thai had committed foul play by leaving no time for its MPs to grill Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon. Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, then FFP secretary-general, alleged there was a secret deal between exiled leader Thaksin Shinawatra and Pheu Thai, which left Gen Prawit unscathed in the House session.
While the two parties share the same political base of anti-government voters, Move Forward goes much further in calling for the reform of the monarchy, throwing its full support behind the 10-point list of demands made by student activists; but Pheu Thai firmly limits its move to unseating the pro-military administration and freeing politics from the army, while leaving the monarchy out of its political plan.
Apart from students, Move Forward finds support in anti-coup and anti-Thaksin groups.
Pheu Thai, with more political experience from being dissolved twice and after two coups in 20 years, believes that to confront the military, it needs a long game plan with more time and subtle tactics. If necessary, a compromise must be made that enables it to garner public support. If luck is on its side, the party might knock the military over with one move. And, it should be noted that Thaksin's party always makes a comeback in post-coup elections as Thai people abhor coups d'etat.
Move Forward is different as it's a new, left-leaning party, with hot-headed young people as its staunch supporters. The party wants to cash in on the new student uprising, which comes almost 50 years after the 1973 upheaval. Core party leaders admit the students are more progressive than they had thought. Under such circumstances, the party thinks it is necessary to push things hard, or those in power may rebound, and do whatever they can to weaken the movement.
This explains why there is a lack of unity between the two parties as they compete to win support from voters and student activists. The support today could make a difference in the next election, and also the forthcoming local elections expected to take place later this year.
More importantly, it's anticipated that the charter drafters would reinstall the old voting system, as concluded by a House panel tasked with studying the charter amendment draft. If that is the case, Pheu Thai would have an advantage over its rivals since it has previously won under such a system. If the charter drafters curb the senators' power, Pheu Thai could emerge a big winner and win a mandate to form a government.
In the 2019 election, Pheu Thai swept 136 seats, while FFP won 80. Some critics said the FFP's victory was a political windfall as it reaped the benefits from the demise of Thai Raksa Chart, which was dissolved after it nominated Princess Ubolratana as premier.
But after the FFP was dissolved, the party won overwhelming support from sympathisers who today are a strong force challenging the status quo in pro-democracy rallies. Their ideologies are close to what Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Mr Piyabutr have campaigned for over the past years. It's thought that if an election were held today, Move Forward might have a strong chance of beating Pheu Thai, with the support of first-time voters who have no interest in the older party.
Therefore, while the two parties share an anti-dictatorship goal, they will have to fight among themselves to be the winner. Pheu Thai has to maintain its old base: grassroots voters in the provinces. Move Forward needs to expand its base to the older generation. It will be a tough task if the old voting system is reinstalled. In fact, voter sentiment may be tested for each party competing in local polls before the general election, which will take place at least one or two years after the new charter is in place. By then, political factors may alter, but in between, flash mob rallies will take the Prayut government to task.
Given the economic hardship, Gen Prayut's support will definitely shrink further. Under such circumstances, more people will join the rallies. This factor might benefit Move Forward. Perhaps it will give the party another windfall, making it the big poll winner.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.