Thaksin's homecoming is a price too high to pay
The next general election is now firmly on the horizon, with the Election Commission (EC) having tentatively set the date last month as being May next year.
Despite voting still being six months away, pundits and public opinion polls put Pheu Thai as the winner. Successive opinion polls show that Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of fugitive former premier Thaksin, has become increasingly popular -- far more than veteran politicians such as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
This has emboldened Pheu Thai -- now rebranded as the "Pheu Thai Family" -- to announce it will win the election and pass with flying colours. The party has come up with a tagline known as its "landslide campaign" to serve as its slogan.
While a win certainly may be on the cards, I beg to differ with the "landslide" prediction.
My next prognosis is that the party could struggle to form a coalition. As a consequence, its dream of bringing Thaksin back from exile will remain unfulfilled.
Ms Paetongtarn is now a party executive. She has been quoted in interviews as saying she plans to bring her father home using judicial procedures.
Thaksin's homecoming plan is not a novel idea. Indeed, the fugitive who now enjoys a luxurious life overseas has talked about his plan to return home for over a decade. He once told red-shirt supporters via video link, "Right after soldiers start shooting people, I will return and lead a public march bringing people to Bangkok". That was on Feb 8, 2009 -- 13 years ago.
Love him or hate him, you have to give this man credit for being persistent. Thaksin is no quitter.
So 10 years later, he tried again. For his second attempt, the Thai Raksa Chart Party (TRC), which had aligned itself with Thaksin, proposed having Princess Ubolratana as its prime ministerial candidate. But this time Thaksin's stratagem backfired -- big time. Such mistakes are of his own making, rendering him a nemesis unto himself.
Earlier, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), which translates as Thais Love Thais, emerged from Pheu Thai and won a landslide victory in the national elections in 2005. The party won 377 of 500 MP seats, while the Democrat Party, the nation's oldest, won just 96. Chart Thai got 25 and the Mahachon Party, two.
That landslide victory marked Thaksin's golden age. At that time, the TRT also formed an alliance with other small and mid-sized parties such as the New Aspiration Party, the Chart Pattana Party, Seritham Party and Kitsangkhom Party (Social Action Party). It took veteran politicians under its wing and groomed new politicians, who are now movers and shakers in Thai politics.
In the new political landscape, Pheu Thai is no longer the fresh and vibrant party it was two decades ago. It has already passed its prime. Even veteran politicians and founding members have jumped ship to pursue their own political careers. A glaring example would be Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, who left to build the TST. Somkid Jatusripitak, an economic czar and former magnetising force of Thai Rak Thai, is also now co-founding a new party -- Sang Anakhot Thai Party (SATP) -- after having served as deputy prime minister under Gen Prayut, an adversary of Thaksin.
Heavyweight politicians from Thai Rak Thai such as Suriya Juangroongruangkit and Santi Prompat have also joined the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and served as ministers under Gen Prayut.
This week, rumours have been floating around that real estate mogul Srettha Thavisin, president and chief executive of developer Sansiri Plc, could be Pheu Thai's prime ministerial candidate in the next election. Yet it remains to be seen whether this has any substance. And even if it rings true, the mogul remains an outsider, not a member of the Shinawatra clan. As such, he will not be trusted from within its ranks.
Apart from seeing veteran politicians walk out, Pheu Thai also faces challenges with the changing political landscape, where new parties are making inroads. Eyes are now increasingly being fixed on the Bhumjaithai Party and Move Forward Party. Both are making inroads in northeastern constituencies -- long known as Pheu Thai's turf.
Bhumjaithai is touted to make a big splash in the May election, with the medium-sized party forecast to win 80-100 seats. It was widely reported that 30 MPs from other parties went to say "happy birthday" to Newin Chidchob, the political strategist and advisor of the Bhumjaithai, on Oct 4, suggesting another batch of potential ship-jumpers are amassing ahead of the poll.
Mr Newin, a former sidekick of Thaksin, publicly announced that he would make Public Health Minister and Deputy PM Anutin Charnvirakul the next prime minister. Mr Newin has also vowed to see the Bhumjaithai win 120 seats in the next election.
Meanwhile, the PPRP is sliding downhill. It will be fortunate to nab 50 seats in May. Likewise, the Democrat Party will have to fight tooth and nail to retain its stronghold in the southern constituencies.
The new small parties can also form a political bloc and merge with the coalition government.
Now we have the Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party led by Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, the Ruam Thai Sang Chart led by Peeraphan Rattawipak, the Thai Pakdee Party overseen by former Democrat ally Dr Warong Dechgitvigrom, and Chartpattana Kla. The latter represents a political merging of Suwat Liptapallop, the Democrats' former deputy leader, and ex-finance minister Korn Chatikavanij. And don't forget the Ruam Pandin Party led by Gen Witch Devahastin, which can grab a few seats in the North.
And never ever forget the MFP, which is likely to do well in the next election.
These up-and-coming parties could prove an obstacle hindering Pheu Thai's "landslide".
The question is, which parties want to represent a party closely affiliated with the Shinawatra brand? Especially as they would be sanctioning the repatriation and re-empowerment of a fugitive who fled the country to escape jail.
Lest we forget, it was the attempt to pass an amnesty bill that doomed the Yingluck Shinawatra government (Thaksin's younger sister). That triggered huge street protests, which hurt Pheu Thai and led to the military coup.
Of course, Thaksin is welcome to come home anytime, but he must still face justice. And if his dream to return comes true, Thai society will have to answer to the world as well as to itself.
I believe no society should make a quid-pro-quo agreement between one man's freedom and the Thai justice system, which has been accepted internationally for over a century. His dream will end up costing the country far too much.
Prasarn Marukpitak is a former senator and member of the National Reform Council.