Chaithawat: Thanathorn's alter ego?
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Chaithawat: Thanathorn's alter ego?

Move Forward Party secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon, a longtime friend of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit — head of the Progressive Group and founder of Future Forward — has been chosen to replace Pita Limjaroenrat as the new party leader. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)
Move Forward Party secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon, a longtime friend of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit — head of the Progressive Group and founder of Future Forward — has been chosen to replace Pita Limjaroenrat as the new party leader. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

The latest move by the Move Forward Party (MFP) to enlist a new leader to replace Pita Limjarorenrat demonstrates its determination to lead the opposition.

Mr Pita, whose MP status was suspended by the charter court in connection with his alleged iTV share ownership, resigned from his position as MFP leader to pave the way for a new leader to be selected. The court issued the suspension in a lightning manner but certainly took its time considering the case. At present, the MFP is a leaderless party.

The 2017 charter requires parties vying for the position of opposition head to have a leader. The Democrats, who are facing a leadership crisis, are not eligible for the top job either.

Chaithawat Tulathon, MFP secretary-general, is expected to be named the new leader.

Mr Chaithawat is a long-time friend of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who is now head of the Progressive Group. Formerly classmates in Triam Udom Suksa school and members of the Student Federation of Thailand during their university years, the two share a similar political ideology. Mr Chaithawat was also a founding member of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party.

It's well known that Mr Thanathorn, despite being banned from politics, has played a crucial role in the MFP. As his 10-year political ban is still in effect, Mr Thanathorn has pursued a parallel form of politics outside of parliament as the Progressive Group leader and a major patron of the MFP.

It could be said that Mr Chaithawat is Mr Thanathorn's alter ego, and now that Mr Pita has stepped aside, Mr Thanathorn feels the urge to streamline the party. Sirikanya Tansakul, deputy party leader and also a candidate for the MFP leader, is likely to be ditched despite more public support because she is close to Mr Pita.

Some pundits have said that Mr Chaithawat, if elected as the MFP head, will perform as opposition leader until the parliament ends its term as there is a high chance the charter court will strip Mr Pita of his MP status due to the iTV share case.

This is ironic. Despite its huge election victory, the MFP suffered a loss in parliament. Mr Pita could not get enough votes for his bid for the premiership, and the party's attempt to form a coalition flopped — now the MFP must give up the deputy house speaker post if it wants to lead the opposition bloc. A true dilemma.

The MFP is forced to choose as the charter prohibits the party from having it both ways. Under Section 106 of the charter, the biggest party in the opposition camp is eligible for the bloc's leadership, but its MPs must not serve as cabinet ministers or as the House speaker or deputy speaker.

Initially, the MFP had no interest in leading the opposition as it already has Padipat Santiphada as deputy House speaker, who was to facilitate bills for reform initiated by the party.

But the party has to rethink the position of opposition bloc leader after the Democrats' Jurin Laksanawisit seemed to outperform acting MFP leader Sirikanya while they challenged the government's policies during the first parliamentary session. Besides, opinion polls show that the people want the MFP to keep the role of opposition leader — as it is better at enforcing checks and balances.

More importantly, MFP is well aware that the post of opposition leader cannot be left vacant for too long, or it may be grabbed by other parties aligned with the government, like Chartpattanakla or Pheu Thai Ruam Palang. Both parties are eligible as they have no members in the cabinet.

At the same time, it's reported that the MFP has eyed charter loopholes that may enable it to keep the two positions. In doing so, the MFP will have to expel Mr Padipat, and he could switch to the Fair Party, one of its allies in the opposition camp. Mr Padipat could then still perform as deputy House speaker.

He has to wait until the next poll to return to the MFP. But such cunning tactics are not good for the MFP — which usually projects itself as a constructive party striving for a new kind of politics.

After all, the role of opposition bloc leader is very important for the MFP as the party stands to gain from the Pheu Thai-led coalition's prospective shortcomings.

The Srettha Thavisin government has several wounds and weaknesses. The legal double standards applied to former fugitive PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who is now staying in the premium ward of the Police Hospital, is a bad start for the administration. Pheu Thai breaching its promises and embracing parties affiliated with the military, such as the United Nation Party (UTN), has also upset many of its members and sympathisers.

At the same time, several of the party's flagship policies, such as the flat 20-baht rate for train fares or the dubious 10,000-baht digital wallet, are seen as burdens more than they are economic stimuli. Such policy setbacks could lead to an even further decline in public support.

If the MFP maintains the highly acclaimed performance it had during the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration, it could win the next election. But the party has to be strict with its members, particularly the young, first-time MPs, who must steer clear from controversies that could hurt the party's image, like the MP caught drink driving or the alleged tax evasion by a new Rayong MP; and the questionable behaviour of Deputy House Speaker Padipat — who was criticised for posting a picture of draft beer and a planned trip to Singapore.

Over the past years in parliament, the soft-spoken Mr Chaithawat has proven himself to be a capable politician and played a crucial role that ensured the MFP's election success. As Mr Chaithawat takes the helm, with Mr Pita's complementary role, the MFP may well be in full strength to scrutinise the Srettha administration.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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