Are the stars aligning for Pheu Thai?
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Are the stars aligning for Pheu Thai?

Paetongtarn 'Ung Ing' Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party during the party's campaign in Ubon Ratchathani province on Feb 17. Pheu Thai, according to many polls, has been touted as the party most likely to win the next election. (Photo by Pheu Thai Party)
Paetongtarn 'Ung Ing' Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party during the party's campaign in Ubon Ratchathani province on Feb 17. Pheu Thai, according to many polls, has been touted as the party most likely to win the next election. (Photo by Pheu Thai Party)

As all politicians are rolling up their sleeves for the next election, it's clear Pheu Thai is in the lead. There is speculation that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will dissolve parliament next month, probably on March 15, so that the country can head to the polls scheduled for May 7 by the Election Commission (EC).

While it will take the EC two months to confirm the poll results, the post-election political landscape is obvious to many. Analysts have two likely scenarios for the next cabinet: a coalition with Pheu Thai, and one without.

If Pheu Thai wins more than 250 seats -- half of the Lower House -- it has a strong chance of becoming coalition leader. If that happens, the party will submit Paetongtarn "Ung Ing" Shinawatra as its candidate for prime minister. If not, the ex-junta leaders, either Gen Prayut or Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, will form a coalition.

According to opinion polls by Nida, there is a decisive rise in Pheu Thai's popularity. Its strongholds in the North and Northeast remain firm, and it stands a chance of taking Nakhon Si Thammarat and Chon Buri, which are now under the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party's control, given the increasing public support for Ms Paetongtarn. Thaksin Shinawatra's youngest daughter has emerged as the No.2 candidate for PM in the two provinces, after Gen Prayut.

Suchart Chomklin -- who has switched parties from the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) to the UTN -- faces challenges in Chon Buri, as the poll indicates a surge in popularity of Pheu Thai. Ms Paetongtarn leads in popularity with 31%, while Gen Prayut comes second with 18%, followed by the Move Forward Party's (MFP) Pita Limjaroenrat at 17%.

Pheu Thai's massive popularity in the two provinces is quite phenomenal. Even though Pheu Thai has not yet run a campaign in Nakhon Ratchasima, Ms Paetongtarn already leads opinion polls at 37% in the province, where it shared seats with the PPRP and Bhumjaithai in the last poll. She is followed by Mr Pita with 12% and Gen Prayut with 11%.

With such overwhelming support even outside its traditional strongholds, Pheu Thai is confident and is making use of its prospective victory in the campaign, as many people are enticed by a party that has the potential to win.

It could be said that Pheu Thai has an advantage over its rivals, thanks to its clever poll strategy and strong flagship policies. Through his Clubhouse channel, Thaksin has helped secure support for the party and his daughter, while on the ground, party members are firmly attached to their bases.

Pheu Thai's first-generation leaders since the times of Thai Rak Thai, like Dr Surapong Suebwonglee and Phumtham Wechayachai, are behind the party's election strategies and strengthening Ms Paetongtarn's image. They're aiming high for the May 7 poll, probably at 310 seats, not 250 as previously anticipated.

The brief-yet-serious MFP row could also give Pheu Thai a windfall. Thaksin saw an opportunity in the spat, urging MFP fans to instead pour their support behind Pheu Thai. Should the party sweep 310 seats, it could set up a cabinet without help from other parties.

The row began with a war of words on Facebook between MFP leader Mr Pita and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, former secretary general of the dissolved Futture Forward Party (FFP), who strongly criticised the former for the way he ran the party and through what Mr Piyabutr perceived as questionable leadership, saying the party could never expand its base by winning the hearts of those who have no clear poll choices.

On top of that, Mr Piyabutr worried the MFP leader might compromise on the party's stance on monarchy reform and the draconian Section 112 to gain a chance of being a coalition partner of Pheu Thai. Due to its anti-lese majeste law stance, the MFP makes it an unlikely partner for any political party.

The squabble seems to have been cleared up with the intervention of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. But no one can be certain if the two really made up.

Pheu Thai would benefit enormously from the re-introduction of the two-ballot system while the MFP would have to struggle hard, unlike in the previous election, which thanks to the one-ballot system, saw it gain many list-MP seats (50 out of 150 MPs) while Pheu Thai, the top party with the highest popular vote, was stripped of list-MPs.

It's set to be the other way around this time, with speculation that the MFP's list-MPs number will shrink and the party will end up losing its base to Pheu Thai.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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