Paethongtan's big test with new Pheu Thai role
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Paethongtan's big test with new Pheu Thai role

Will Thaksin Shinawatra's youngest daughter Paethongtan make history as the third Shinawatra to become prime minister of Thailand? The question must be on the public's mind as Ms Paethongtan took centre stage at a Pheu Thai party meeting in Udon Thani last Sunday.

Ms Paethongtan, 35, was introduced in a new role as "head of the Pheu Thai family".

Her mission is to expand the party's membership from the current eight million to a targeted 14 million, the number it enjoyed during the heydays as Thai Rak Thai.

Pheu Thai is pushing for a landslide in the next general election, expected to be held at the end of the year.

Ms Paethongtan's new assignment closely followed her political debut and appointment as chief adviser for innovation and participation in October last year.

The successive promotions have led to speculation that Thaksin's daughter is moving closer to becoming Pheu Thai's candidate for prime minister. Ms Paethongtan herself has kept her cards close to her chest. Until parliament is dissolved, it is too soon to talk about the issue, she said. But her appointment to the seemingly unofficial but high-profile roles appears to be Pheu Thai's attempt to test the water for her premiership bid.

The path looks similar to what her aunt Yingluck took a decade ago. Yingluck, Thaksin's youngest sister, was named the top candidate on Pheu Thai's party-list system and thus its nominee for prime minister even though she did not serve as the party leader nor was she in its executive board.

Yingluck was 44, a former CEO of SC Asset Corporation, part of the Shinawatra's expansive business empire, and seen at that time as a political novice who was "least likely to run for office". But history speaks for itself. After being named as the prime ministerial candidate in May 2011, Yingluck leapt from political newbie to be Thailand's first female prime minister in 48 days.

Will Ms Paethongtan be able to follow in Yingluck's footsteps and make the giant leap forward to become the second female and the third Shinawatra to attain the top post?

These are some of the factors that will work for or against her.

First and foremost, the party's strategy in naming her the "head of the Pheu Thai family" seems odd.

Like Yingluck, Ms Paethongtan's experience has been mostly focused on her family business, hotel and real estate management in particular.

The businesswoman would appear more credible as a new face to draw in youngsters who will form a major block of votes in the next election. Naming her the "head" of the Pheu Thai "family" seems to make her box above her weight.

No matter how the party spins it, it is awkward to envisage the inexperienced Ms Paethongtan leading political veterans such as the current party leader Chonlanan Srikaew or deputy leaders Yuttapong Charasathien and Suthin Klangsaeng.

And the emphasis on Pheu Thai as a "family" may not be a good idea.

Such a branding, especially when it is viewed as an attempt to pave the way for Thaksin's daughter, will inevitably hark back to criticism of Pheu Thai as a political dynasty of the Shinawatras, a family business so to speak -- not a real party that belongs to the people serving as a vehicle for their democratic aspirations.

Such a perception could limit Ms Paethongtan's chances among youth groups who are already critical of Thaksin's personality cult.

Externally, Ms Paethongtan will run into stiff competition.

During Sunday's meeting, Ms Paethongtan aimed high for Pheu Thai to win the election and become the core party to set up the government to get rid of the "dictatorship".

Based on such an anti-military, anti-dictatorship standpoint, she will be immediately compared to Move Forward's leader and likely prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat who not only has more political experience under his belt but whose agenda is much more progressive.

Others are heavyweights including Thai Srang Thai party leader Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan and Seri Ruam Thai party leader, Sereepisuth Temeeyaves, who can appeal to people who are bored of political conflicts, who don't want either Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha or Thaksin.

If Ms Paethongtan decides to run, she could turn her weakness into an advantage. At a time when other prime minister candidates have been bruised by recent heavy-handed politics, she embodies a fresh choice who is untested but probably with some potential.

If Ms Paethongtan is nominated as Pheu Thai's PM candidate, she is tied to her father. She could be Thaksin's last bet and determiner of what Pheu Thai, the country's largest party, will be going forward.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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