Prawit manoeuvres for his political life
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Prawit manoeuvres for his political life

Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Palang Pracharath Party, Prawit Wongsuwon, with some of his party's candidates for the upcoming poll. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Palang Pracharath Party, Prawit Wongsuwon, with some of his party's candidates for the upcoming poll. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, in his capacity as leader of the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), has rebranded the ruling party from being conservative right-winged to more liberal, using reconciliation and an end to colour-coded conflict discourse as a selling point.

Gen Prawit possesses a friendly character, an advantage that enables him to shake hands with any politician, regardless of their political stance.

Today, PPRP members adhere to "the need to transcend long-standing conflicts, and no more strife" mantras that, to a certain extent, seem to suggest a possible alliance with the Pheu Thai Party, the leader of the opposition bloc after the next polls.

As Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha left the PPRP for the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, Gen Prawit has proposed himself as the ruling party's candidate for the premiership.

He has brushed up his image while travelling extensively to woo local people in several areas, quite a few of which are seen as UTN strongholds. He has also turned up at areas that Gen Prayut planned to visit just hours ahead of his arrival.

The PPRP is doing its best to stop an exodus of members now the deadline for party swapping approaches. The party seems to be having some luck, given that most core groups still remain loyal to Gen Prawit.

Meanwhile, Capt Thamanat Prompow, a right-hand man of Gen Prawit, has returned, together with a dozen or so politicians in his camp.

More importantly, the PPRP has made a vigorous start by announcing flagship policies, particularly an increase in cash handouts for welfare card holders, for instance.

Of late, Gen Prawit has stepped up his PR campaign, releasing two open letters through his Facebook page, which until recently had been dormant. In the letters, he made known his determination to wrestle with the UTN in overlapping political bases, and a (temporary) breakup with Gen Prayut, now the UTN leader.

He said the PPRP stands ready to form the core of the next government and is determined to pursue reconciliation with a political amnesty for all. His stance on reconciliation has triggered speculation the PPRP may join forces with Pheu Thai when the time comes.

Such speculation derives from some of Gen Prawit's comments. "Politicians must be able to work with all sides, compromising with all parties, so as to ease conflicts, allowing the country to move on," is one example.

"I have proven myself (regarding my ability to compromise) both as army chief and a politician, especially my role in forming this government, which is about to complete its term," was another.

Speaking in parliament during the last censure debate, Gen Prawit said he had no role in the 2014 coup. Instead, he pointed the finger at Gen Prayut, then army commander.

Gen Prawit also said he agreed to join the junta government as deputy prime minister and defence minister, hoping to restore the situation to normalcy.

The first open letter said that after the 2017 constitution was put in place and the country was gearing up for a general election in 2019, Gen Prayut expressed his desire to work in politics, continuing his mission and achieving it.

Therefore, Gen Prawit said he established the PPRP to accommodate his brother-in-arms' wish. The rest is history.

It's quite clear Gen Prawit hatched a new political plan in the middle of last year when he took the lead of the PPRP and now has himself as the party's PM candidate.

Gen Prawit's connection with Thaksin is seen by many as being advantageous toward the idea of reconciliation.

It's said he has strong ties with Thaksin, who promoted him to army chief. This is probably why Thaksin's Pheu Thai spared him during no-confidence censures, a move that caused a rift with other opposition parties. Maintaining ties with Gen Prawit would help secure a chance for Pheu Thai to rise to power.

It's expected that Gen Prawit and his PPRP will soon make an amnesty law and reconciliation as their poll stance, citing a need to end colour-coded conflicts. It's an irony Gen Prawit, as a core figure in the junta and PPRP, failed to make this happen over the past eight years. Of course, such a stance is shared by Pheu Thai, with the hope that it would eventually benefit Thaksin, who is in exile.

One possible formula for the next government is Pheu Thai, which should win around 200 seats, joining forces with the PPRP (20-40 seats) and Bhumjaithai (100 seats).

Like the PPRP, the other parties have adhered to reconciliation mantras. Newin Chidchob, Bhumjaithai's core leader, declared the country must put an end to its conflicts.

Pheu Thai said it's open to forming a coalition with the PPRP. Both Paetongtarn Shinawatra and Cholanan Srikaew, when asked about the chance of forming an alliance with the PPRP, said it would depend on the election results. It should be noted there were reports Capt Thamanat met Thaksin recently. The discreet meeting prompted analysts to foresee a Pheu Thai-PPRP coalition.

Forging a coalition with the PPRP is a two-birds-with-one-stone tactic for Pheu Thai. Drawing the PPRP into the prospective coalition would help improve its stability, while Gen Prawit, with his control over the 250-force Senate, would secure a chance for Pheu Thai's premiership candidate.

An amnesty proposal initiated by the PPRP seems more justified, and the alliance with the ruling party would help make its hope for amnesty a reality once they share power. This would be a bonus for the Pheu Thai.

Yet their prospective coalition has been criticised by Jatuporn Promphan, the ex-red shirt leader. He claimed there's a "special deal" at hand that is inappropriate.

Niphit Intarasombat, the PPRP's core figure, downplayed the speculation regarding Thaksin's return. The veteran politician said Thaksin, a fugitive, may seek a royal pardon, but in doing so he would have to go to jail first.

Of course, Pheu Thai will deny it has such a plan. But it's an open secret the party would do anything to bring the fugitive home. In 2013, the Yingluck Shinawatra administration threw the country into trouble with its amnesty push, which triggered mass street protests that resulted in the military coup.

Now Paetongtarn, leader of the Pheu Thai family, has followed suit. If Pheu Thai wins again, Thaksin's youngest daughter is set to become premier. She has made her stance clear about Thaksin's comeback. While addressing a red-shirt gathering, she said if the party could form a government, "Tony (Thaksin's pseudonym) will return and raise his grandchildren."

But it's believed the PPRP's reconciliation discourse could be just a ploy for immediate political gains.

The party should realise the high cost of bringing Thaksin back, clearing all his past deeds through an amnesty. So, there should be no surprise if the PPRP backtracks after it survives the next elections.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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