About politics

Pheu Thai feels it needs a makeover, and Sudarat is tipped to lead it v Though still a draft, a hand-crafted print version of the charter is being transcribed v Abhisit makes political capital in red territory while the atmosphere is subdued

Time fora change

The Pheu Thai Party could be gearing up to instal a new leadership structure that would be non-confrontational and more open to adopting an internal restructuring to make it more institutional.

As a political entity, Pheu Thai has been technically dormant since the National Council for Peace and Order imposed strict rules on political assembly, which effectively ban all parties from convening meetings and passing resolutions.

Some of its key members and core figures closely allied to the red shirts have been taking a stand against the junta as individuals in recent times, speaking out and often acting against the military regime's policies and orders. That has resulted in their periodic detention by the regime in order to undergo "attitude adjustment" in the barracks.

The referendum law -- which includes punishment for protests opposing the draft constitution, whether they be overt or covert, that provoke public unrest -- has been these members' latest rallying point.

Chalerm Yubamrung, the former labour minister and one of Pheu Thai's most prominent members, has stated the party must take a clear stand in opposing the military regime. Only through positioning itself as a defender of democracy and a critic of the military government can the party retain its popular support base, which will be a significant selling point when the next general election is held, at this stage in the latter half of next year.

Political sources, however, agree the Pheu Thai member to watch now is Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, the deputy leader of the defunct Thai Rak Thai Party.

Khunying Sudarat is one of the most trusted aides of Pheu Thai boss Thaksin Shinawatra. That alone gives her the support needed to move her into the post of party leader in the future.

A party source said Thaksin has made known his wish for Pheu Thai members to "embrace" Khunying Sudarat and be accepting of her as she could well be leading the party into the next election battle.

She has been given a mandate to reform the party and turn it into a political institution, a task which is intended to mend Pheu Thai's image as a political plaything passed around among members of the "Shin-da-wongs" -- which refers to the alliance of the Shinawatra clan and their related and trusted bloodline of the Damapong and Wongsawat families.

Political experts say Pheu Thai needs to be freed from the clutches of the three families and build itself into a truly representative and participatory party if it is to have any chance of sustaining long-term public support and stay the political course.

In addition to her ties to Thaksin, Khunying Sudarat has connections to several NCPO heavies, according to the party source who thinks she would be more inclined to take a non-confrontational approach to running the party if chosen as leader. This might help to steer the party away from the fate met by Thaksin's previous personal political vehicles, Thai Rak Thai and People's Power. The two parties were dissolved over electoral fraud, and Khunying Sudarat was among the 111 Thai Rak Thai executives who were banned from politics for five years.

Khunying Sudarat has been making frequent appearances at party gatherings alongside Pheu Thai secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai. She quietly shares the party's disapproval of the draft charter, particularly with regard to an appointed Senate being given power equal to that of elected MPs.

But she mostly prefers to keep her feelings about the draft to herself, leaving anti-coup academics and civic groups to do the talking.

Confident of success

The referendum on the draft constitution is drawing near, and despite the regime's efforts, signs are emerging of just what might happen in the vote, according to political observers.

That has encouraged Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, who is in charge of legal affairs, to instructed artisans from the Bureau of Royal Scribes and Royal Decorations under the Secretariat of the Cabinet to produce a handwritten version of the draft constitution which will take the form of an accordion-style parchment.

The scribes have been handed a challenging task. They are required to craft in their most eloquent handwriting every single word of the draft charter, which contains 105 pages, to produce 279 sections on the Samud Thai -- a long, narrow, folding book made up of paper sheets bound together which is traditionally used to inscribe important documents including the constitution, the country's supreme law.

This inscription process is time-consuming and involves a great deal of concentration. The scribes have to make sure there are no errors, Mr Wissanu said.

If the draft constitution wins passage in the Aug 7 referendum, the scribes will be given only about a month to finish the work.

Therefore, the process to write the draft charter in longhand is now getting under way so that it can be finished soon after the referendum, Mr Wissanu said.

But preparing for this exacting task has some observers speculating on the outcome of the referendum.

Regarding the extra question to be appended to the charter referendum, Mr Wissanu said if this also passes the referendum, the Constitution Drafting Committee chaired by Meechai Ruchupan will have to amend the draft in line with the voters' intention.

Voters will be asked whether the 250-appointed senators serving a five-year term during the transition period to full democracy should be allowed to join the House of Representatives in voting to select a prime minister for this period.

This means the scribes will need extra time to write down the amendments in the Samud Thai -- a process which will last until mid-September.

If passed, the new handwritten version of the charter with its ornate golden covers will be submitted to His Majesty the King for royal endorsement. It should be promulgated in October, Mr Wissanu said.

Once the constitution is enacted, the CDC will then spend about two months drawing up four organic laws governing elections, and these are expected to be finished in December. The draft laws will be forwarded to the National Legislative Assembly for consideration, which will take two months. If approved, the four draft laws will be sent back to the CDC and the Election Commission for review.

The bills should become law in April, setting the stage for the general election which is expected to be held between August and September next year, Mr Wissanu said.

As though to quell wild speculation over the draft charter's approval chances, the deputy prime minister also commented on a scenario in which the draft is shot down in the referendum.

If the draft charter is rejected, the government will decide what steps would be taken and the interim charter would be amended to address the issue.

Any of the past constitutions, particularly the 1997 and 2007 ones, may be adopted and adjusted to create a new constitution, but this process should not take too much time, Mr Wissanu said.

Treading a wary path

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has not been sitting still since the coup two years ago.

Every now and then he takes to the provinces in low-key visits to keep the Democrat flag flying. Over the past two years, the former prime minister has been to just about every region.

His critics have been following his itinerary and wonder if his provincial visits are a political campaign in disguise. If so, it might amount to blatant defiance of the National Council for Peace and Order's (NCPO) ban on political activities and acts of canvassing.

However, political experts agree that now may be an opportune time for the Democrat leader and party politicians to tour the provinces since they have had so much difficulty in recent times.

Under previous governments when colour-coded conflicts were brewing, the Democrats were compelled to assess the risks of visiting provinces where many residents had a red leaning. In particular, the Democrats had to take special precautions when they went to red-shirt heartlands in places such as Chiang Mai and Udon Thani.

The tension whipped up by social distrust had segregated people and forced politicians in various constituencies to stick to their turf. It was tantamount to a line being drawn that kept parties on either side of the political divide from expanding their strongholds, according to the experts.

It became that much harder for the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties, which are traditional arch rivals, to try to get a foothold in each other's bastions.

But when the NCPO toppled the Yingluck Shinawatra administration, it slapped a ban on political gatherings and engagements that could likely reignite social discord and unrest.

For Pheu Thai, the coup presented an occasion for it to go into a hiatus and a time of reflection, although some members have been drawing flak from the NCPO and the government, and subsequently face punitive action for breaking the law and ignoring repeated warnings not to step out of bounds. That includes political statements and provocative opinions on a range of issues, from democracy to the referendum.

The former ruling party has largely been dormant on other fronts as its former MPs appear to have reduced their visibility and have not been active in engaging with their constituents.

Political experts feel Pheu Thai is in stealth mode and laying low while still keeping an eye on the unfolding political situation before deciding to make a decisive move.

Conversely, the Democrats have opted for a different strategy, refusing to fade into the background despite the coup and the subsequent attempts to keep politicians quiet.

Mr Abhisit talks about current affairs as well as regularly offering his opinion on hot issues of the day on the Fah Wan Mai (A New Day's Sky) satellite channel. He is known to have baffled even party supporters by doing the unexpected, such as declaring that the Democrats found the draft charter to be unacceptable.

Outside the studio, his profile has been raised in places few thought he would be able to go without local resistance two years ago.

This week, he and Democrat stalwarts arrived in Udon Thani to visit residents affected by the violent summer storms. They handed out relief bags prepared by the MR Seni Pramoj Foundation in Kumphawapi district.

Mr Abhisit was all smiles and he made his presence felt with no protest being raised against his visit. Political observers feel the Democrat leader should cash in on this and try to expand his local support at a time when the political situation is subdued.

But they advise caution in case the NCPO interprets his movements as having an illegal political motive such as campaigning to gain a head start in the general election which is expected next year.