Nattawut active as 'Tony' itches to return
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Nattawut active as 'Tony' itches to return

Ex red-shirt leader's rally linked to Thaksin revival

Red-shirt leader Nattawut Saikuar returns to rallies by joining the Aug 1
Red-shirt leader Nattawut Saikuar returns to rallies by joining the Aug 1 "car mob" rally demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. (Bangkok Post file photo)

Anti-government activists are back on the streets despite a surge in Covid-19 cases and a virus lockdown.

A focal point is red-shirt leader Nattawut Saikuar who previously refused to join rallies against the Prayut Chan-o-cha government organised by red shirt co-leader Jatuporn Prompan.

But Mr Nattawut did decide to join the Aug 1 "car mob" rally. Some of the protesters in Mr Nattawut's group were seen waving banners in support of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra while Mr Nattawut himself sported a red shirt denoting phrai (commoners) at the rally.

Some political observers see his move as having political implications given Thaksin's increased public profile recently while those in the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) dismiss it just a coincidence.

Striking while iron is hot

Mr Nattawut has decided to make his move now partly because the government is vulnerable and the protest led by red-shirt leader Mr Jatuporn has lost momentum, said a source from the main opposition Pheu Thai Party.

Mr Nattawut, he said, has stayed away from party activity since he was granted an early release from prison under royal clemency in December last year.

"You can say his move will benefit the Pheu Thai Party but I think he still works with Mr Chaturon Chaisang who is likely to form a new party. But no matter what, they will eventually merge," said the source.

Some people link Mr Nattawut's move with Thaksin's appearances in the Clubhouse platform as "Tony Woodsome" because they share common ground.

Moreover, the government's poor handling of the Covid-19 has caused public frustration to grow and when the people are frustrated, they tend to think about the Pheu Thai Party and Thaksin, said the source.

A source from the UDD said Mr Nattawut has broken his political silence because Gen Prayut has lost the Covid-19 fight and there should be a change in leadership.

It is a mere coincidence that the car mob rally and the ousted prime minister's move have come along at the same time. "It has nothing to do with Thaksin, but Gen Prayut is incompetent in solving the problems," said the source.

Uniting anti-govt allies

Stithorn Thananithichote, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, said there is a clear connection between Mr Nattawut's and Thaksin's moves.

Thaksin, who has recently made clear he wants to return to Thailand, has campaigned through the "Care" group, a breakaway faction consisting of politicians close to the ousted premier, he said.

While Thaksin can count on the Pheu Thai Party for political support, he will look to the red shirt group for public support and Mr Nattawut has done a good job of drawing the red shirt crowds, he said.

That could produce both short-term and long-term results.

"The political games inside and outside parliament and Thaksin are moving together. It is a short-term move for him to get back in the political action. If he can't, it provides a chance for the Pheu Thai Party to reclaim his political victory. Soon there will be a House dissolution," he said.

The main opposition party needs more than 130 House seats to get a mandate in the next general election and its main rivals are the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and Move Forward Party (MFP).

Mr Stithorn also said it is possible to see the PPRP-Pheu Thai ally due to the Covid-19 situation as some quarters want a political break and all sides to pull together to lift the country out of the crisis.

"The government is really in a tight spot. But I think the Gen Prayut team believes if the government can drag on until December, it is likely to survive. So, the key is to pull through until December," he said.

Fighting for support

A rift in the opposition bloc is widening following a row between the Pheu Thai Party and the MFP over the allocation of 16 billion baht to the central fund during the budget bill examination.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said Pheu Thai has regained its footing in parliament after zeroing in on the proposed defence spending plan.

The main opposition party has also wooed support from younger voters via Thaksin who draws thousands of people to his Clubhouse chats. The gap between the Pheu Thai Party and supporters of the MFP is being narrowed, according to the academic.

Thaksin has also tested the water by talking about his return to Thailand, a move that usually draws fire from his critics and Gen Prayut's supporters.

"The political support for the government is weakening and the conservatives are ready to let go, but they just can't find Gen Prayut's replacement," he said.

Therefore, Mr Nattawut could not let the chance pass by. He decided to use it to rally red shirt supporters to political action, he said.

Yutthaporn Isarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said the opposition camp is loosely allied, just like the coalition government.

He said Mr Nattawut's move shows good ties between his group and Thaksin who he said was in the process of rebranding. However, he doubted the MFP's supporters will "get" (understand) Tony in the way the red shirt supporters do.

"The red shirts and the MFP supporters grew up amid different political conflicts. Even with the rebranding, I doubt that young people will know Tony the way Mr Nattawut's generation does. So it's hard to say if Tony will succeed in elections again," he said.

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