Pheu Thai may need a risky alliance
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Pheu Thai may need a risky alliance

A Dec 6 picture shows Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, the youngest daughter of billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at a party news conference in Bangkok. (Photo: Reuters)
A Dec 6 picture shows Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, the youngest daughter of billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at a party news conference in Bangkok. (Photo: Reuters)

With the election approaching, Pheu Thai has experienced a setback. Despite its massive populist scheme -- a pledge of 10,000-baht digital wallets -- a number of pre-election opinion poll results show stagnating, if not declining, support for the party while its friend-turned-foe Move Forward Party is doing better by the day.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the party's chief adviser on public participation and innovation, and head of the "Pheu Thai Family", still leads as top choice for PM with 35.7% approval according to the latest pre-election poll by Nida, but her popularity dropped 2.5% from its previous 38%, compared to Pita Limjaroenrat, for whom support has risen sharply, with 20.25% favouring him, a 4.5% increase. Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha came third with 13.6%, down from 15%.

As the two former opposition alliance members share the same support base, one party's loss is the other party's gain.

The polls strongly indicate that Pheu Thai may not be able to fulfil its dream of a landslide victory. One thing that does seem certain, however, is that the party cannot secure more than 50% popularity in any region.

Mr Pita, meanwhile, has won Bangkok respondents' hearts, with 25% approval, beating Ms Paetongtarn, who trails behind on 24%.

Pheu Thai's setback can be blamed on the party's vague stance on potential future alliances -- particularly, whether it would join hands with parties whose leaders had a hand in the two previous coups, while the MFP ruled another partnership out from the beginning.

The party's vagueness over potential allies triggered speculation about a possible coalition comprising the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) under Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, and Bhumjaithai. When pressed by the public, key party figures attempted to remain evasive over its strategies. Only after its popularity clearly dropped was Ms Paetongtarn, the party's potential candidate for PM, forced to make the party's choice clear.

"Look at my face. This is a face that doesn't like coups," said Ms Paetongtarn at a press conference on Tuesday.

She claimed that the party had not given a clear answer previously because it "wanted to show respect to the people as the election date was not fixed yet".

She further said: "If you ask me if we want to join hands with those involved in the two previous coups. The answer is clear in itself."

Yet, quite a few observers still think such an answer remains unclear and that she is keeping the door open for Gen Prawit, who has tried to distance himself from the 2014 coup, blaming it solely on Gen Prayut.

Besides, the Pheu Thai leadership has been ambiguous over who would be named as its prime ministerial candidate. Initially, the party, or Thaksin Shinawatra, designated Ms Paetongtarn for the top job, but she is in the advanced stages of pregnancy and scheduled to give birth in the first week of May. The party has then also put forward real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin. But, he was languishing in fifth in recent polls.

It was initially thought that fugitive Thaksin had hand-picked the businessman for the top job because, unlike his daughter, he might gain support from some members of the Senate, while the young Ms Paetongtarn can afford to wait and accumulate experience.

Pheu Thai's stagnancy may also derive from some candidates' over-confidence in the run-up to the election. There are complaints that more than a few have not visited their constituencies often enough.

Meanwhile, the rise in popularity for the MFP is attributable to Mr Pita's impressive performance in election debates, the way he managed to handle tough issues like the lese majeste law amendment, and his firm "no" on alliances with parties led by people with coups in their past. Pheu Thai, on the other hand, has been represented by different figures like Dr Prommin Lertsuridej, in addition to Ms Paetongtarn, who have hardly given clear answers on those issues.

As mentioned earlier, Pheu Thai and the MFP have the same support base, particularly among young voters. In the beginning, when Ms Paetongtarn debuted as a PM candidate, she wowed young voters in this group, but that fad eventually faded while Mr Pita and the MFP went on to entice the young with solid policies, including a focus on new politics, strong economic blueprints, efficient checks-and-balance systems, as well as a popular proposal to abolish mandatory conscription.

The speculated MP seat split between the opposition and government is 60/40 or 70/30 at most. If the MFP can maintain its strong campaign performance, Pheu Thai may have to switch its strategy and dump the PPRP in an attempt to rebrand its image as a pro-democracy. If it cannot win by a landslide, or gain more than 250 seats, Pheu Thai may have to reconsider the MFP as a coalition partner -- the option it has tried to avoid from the start.

Speculation surrounding this new scenario is based on the fact that Pheu Thai has revised its stance on the amendment of Section 112, or the lese majeste law, a standpoint that put it on the opposite side of the MFP. From sheer disinterest, the party is now starting to show enthusiasm in order to regain support from the pro-reform groups.

While trying to omit the lese majeste law amendment from its poll campaign, Pheu Thai has evidently fallen to the same tune as anti-Section 112 advocates by saying the amendment of this contentious law should be the task of the new parliament.

This is also the stance of Mr Pita and the MFP. If elected, its MPs or the people's sector will push for lese majeste law amendment in the House.

Other parties, Seri Ruam Thai as well as Thai Sang Thai, which are seen as would-be coalition partners, have also started to jump on the Section 112 amendment bandwagon, softening their stance against alteration of the controversial law.

Chartthaipattana, another potential coalition member, suggested a referendum on the proposed amendment. Such backtracking on the draconian law is seen as an attempt to make any post-election coalition formation go more smoothly.

But anything can happen in Thai politics.

Despite Ms Paetongtarn's latest anti-coup stance, several elements in the Pheu Thai Party remain open to a partnership with the PPRP. Some even think Gen Prawit could get a chance to be PM or, at least, his PPRP would be able to form a coalition government with either Pheu Thai or Gen Prayut's United Thai Nation.

More importantly, Gen Prawit noted people with experience in politics know the formation of a government never goes as expected.

Gen Prawit cited as an example that in the 2019 general election, leaders of many parties set conditions for joining a coalition, declaring they would opt out if their conditions were not met. Still, in the end, they did so anyway, claiming it was for "the good of the people".

It seems Ms Paetongtarn was the politician in question for Gen Prawit when he posted his ninth letter on his FB.

After all, changes cannot definitely be ruled out in Thai politics.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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