Can Pheu Thai Party get its groove back?
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Can Pheu Thai Party get its groove back?

Since 2001, the Thai Rak Thai Party and its subsequent offshoot Pheu Thai Party have never lost an election.

Even at the last election in 2019, the party gained the most votes, but it could not form a coalition government due to the previous election law and ballot calculation system. In the upcoming election, Pheu Thai is projected to come first again, and the party may even have the opportunity to form a coalition government. Suffice to say, winning again might not be as big a challenge as finding a party nominee for prime minister.

Unconfirmed news hints that the party might nominate 35-year-old Paetongtarn Shinawatra, ex-PM Thaksin's youngest daughter, as prime minister. The news is making a big splash because technically, the scenario is not impossible. The party has made three members of the Shinawatra family premier -- Thaksin, Yingluck and Somchai Wongsawat.

At this point, the qualifications and record of Paetongtarn, nicknamed Oong Ing, are clean. She does not hold shares in media companies, hasn't been caught breaking the law, nor committed crimes or malfeasance that would disqualify her from being a PM nominee. Yet unlike that of her relatives, the road to Government House for Paetongtarn might not be paved with roses. The golden age of the Shinawatra political dynasty is already behind the times.

Paetongtarn may have her father's backing and the respect of the Pheu Thai Party, but on the political stage, she is a newbie. Despite often talking about tagging along with her father during election campaigns, none of Thaksin's children has ever jumped into elections nor worked as staff in the party which their father created.

Paetongtarn has run her family's business empire, operating several hotels as well as an Alpine golf course. That said, she needs to show she has the ability, knowledge and, most of all, conviction to become a politician who works in the name of public service. For now, she is capitalising on the legacy of her father -- the 30-baht universal healthcare scheme and the One Tambon, One Product policy. But that is not enough if she wishes to become Thailand's youngest prime minister.

Thailand's political landscape has changed a great deal. Despite Pheu Thai remaining a leader today, it is questionable whether the party can display the top form it had in 2005 when it swept 18 million votes. The party also has new rivals, such as the Move Forward Party, an offshoot of the now-defunct Future Forward Party, which will compete against Paetongtarn to win young voters.

The problem is that the new image of the Pheu Thai Party brand, especially the "Pheu Thai Family", may not be the right strategy for the political landscape. The Pheu Thai Family image may help retain millions of loyal voters and ensure politicians in the camp that Thaksin will not bow out, but the image can become a weak point.

First, the "family" image can make the party sound like a family business. Above all, the family image represents tradition and selective inclusion that go against the zeitgeist of an open society. Instead of uniting people, the family image could alienate millions of undecided voters and members of the young generation, forcing them to think twice before joining the Pheu Thai Party.

In the past few months, party staff have been working hard to groom Paetongtarn for a political career, highlighting the features of her character -- modern and confident yet respectful and flexible -- to show that the young Shinawatra is ready to cooperate.

This month, she will start visiting northeastern provinces to meet "Pheu Thai families", before moving on to woo voters in big cities such as Bangkok. These events are designed to boost her political image.

Meanwhile, Paetongtarn, who normally communicates via Twitter, has started speaking to the press. Indeed, she has started giving interviews on major news talk shows, answering questions about her father's future and clearing the air surrounding old allegations that she cheated during an exam while studying at Chulalongkorn University.

These events will also be a means of measuring her popularity, or at least pave the way for her political career in the future.

Yet the major barrier to her success is her age. While few countries in Europe have elected young leaders -- the Austrian PM was 31 and Finland's PM was 34 when elected into office -- it is almost unthinkable in Thailand's politics, where seniority is highly valued.

For the next national election, Paentongtarn is seemingly punching above her weight. No matter what the outcome is, there is plenty of time for Paetongtarn to fail, learn and prove her merit. If Paetongtarn can convince voters she is entering politics to serve the public, she will soon become a force to reckon with, or perhaps even become the youngest PM of the country.

Aekarach Sattaburuth is senior political news reporter at Bangkok Post.

Aekarach Sattaburuth

General News Reporter

Bangkok Post General News Reporter

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