Calling on the red shirts: Pheu Thai needs you to beat the dope vote!

Calling on the red shirts: Pheu Thai needs you to beat the dope vote!

Thaksin's old party lures back red-shirt stalwart Nattawut Saikuar to help take on Bhumjaithai

Nattawut Saikuar speaks to supporters of the Pheu Thai Party during a campaign in Si Sa Ket province on Jun 18, 2022. (Pheu Thai photo)
Nattawut Saikuar speaks to supporters of the Pheu Thai Party during a campaign in Si Sa Ket province on Jun 18, 2022. (Pheu Thai photo)

The Pheu Thai Party has welcomed former red-shirt stalwart Nattawut Saikuar back to the fold, hoping his oratorical skills will help win support in the Northeast that has been tapped by the Bhumjaithai Party, political scientists say.

However, they are sceptical Mr Nattawut's return can lure back the red-shirt group after many former core red-shirt members, who once formed part of the Pheu Thai Party's electoral support, scattered to various parties over the years.

Mr Nattawut has been named director of the Pheu Thai Family project and will work with Paetongtarn Shinawatra, leader of the project and a daughter of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The project aims to recruit new members or supporters across the country, with a target of expanding its membership of 8 million to 14 million, to realise the party's plan to clinch a landslide win in the general election tipped for next year.

Mr Nattawut's first mission, "Lai Noo Tee Ngu Hao" (Chasing Away Rat and Beating the Cobras) in Si Sa Ket on June 18, kickstarted the party's campaign to take back the northeastern region.

The theme was believed to be an attack on the Bhumjaithai Party. "Noo", or rat, is the nickname of Anutin Charnvirakul, the Bhumjaithai leader, while the "cobras" allude to the Pheu Thai's renegade members and defectors to the Bhumjaithai.

Playmaker against Bhumjaithai

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University, said the Pheu Thai Party appears to see the Bhumjaithai, not the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), as its arch rival in the next poll.

The popularity of the second-biggest coalition party is said to have spiked following the delisting of cannabis as a narcotic and there is a good chance the Pheu Thai will lose some MPs to Bhumjaithai.

Pheu Thai may have found that it lacks the resources needed to compete with Bhumjaithai especially in the Northeast, said the analyst.

Mr Nattawut's oratorical skills and his past working experience with Newin Chidchob, the Bhumjaithai strongman who was also a founder of the red-shirt movement before switching, should help Pheu Thai narrow a gap, he said.

With the ruling PPRP in a disarray, Mr Nattawut is expected to focus mainly on the Bhumjaithai in the upcoming election battle which is a high-stakes game for the Pheu Thai Party, he said.

However, reuniting red-shirt members and turning them into party supporters is no easy task because the political landscape has changed and many have found new political homes, he said. "Other core red-shirt members such as Jatuporn Promphan or Seksakol Atthawong have found their opportunities, but Mr Nattawut isn't deemed to have a choice and this is his big chance to return to political space.

"Many red shirts have moved on and their numbers have fallen by half since the days of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. I don't think we'll see the same old red shirt movement because their image is negative. The red-shirt movement needs rebranding," he said.

According to Mr Wanwichit, the Si Sa Ket campaign should offer a glimpse of the Pheu Thai's strategy in the campaign against Bhumjaithai. However, when it comes to the Move Forward Party (MFP), the party is likely to adopt a different approach by showing potential supporters why Pheu Thai is a better choice.

Yutthaporn Isarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said the glory days of the red-shirt movement are behind it and Mr Nattawut is unlikely to attract many back. However, Mr Nattawut's return should tackle the party's lack of prominent individuals with rhetoric to sway voters once a full-scale election campaign is under way.

"His pitch involves the success of Thaksin Shinawatra and the Thai Rak Thai Party and how it is passed on to the Yingluck administration. After a nine-year break from power, Pheu Thai needs Thaksin's past achievements if it wants to prep Ms Paetongtarn as the party's prime minister candidate," he said.

However, Mr Nattawut is unlikely to be appointed as the party's election director as the move could land the party in trouble and could lead to party dissolution, he said. The former red-shirt leader is unable to contest an election due to a jail term he served for leading a violent red-shirt protest more than a decade ago outside the residence of late Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda.

Mr Yutthaporn said the politician also lacks the experience required from an election director and the job is expected to be handled by the party's strategic team led by heavyweights like Phumtham Wechayachai.

"The MFP is not a threat to the Pheu Thai in the constituency system, but the Bhumjaithai Party has expanded its base in the Northeast and emerged as a formidable opponent,'' he said.

The coalition partner has been in charge of several A-list ministries such as the Transport Ministry and the Public Health Ministry, so has something to show voters in the campaign, he said, adding that several Pheu Thai MPs may defect to the party when the time is right.

"Under these circumstances, Pheu Thai needs to be aggressive and one can see that from the Si Sa Ket campaign which is seen as a direct attack on Mr Anutin. I think political temperature can only rise now," he said. However, both parties will be ready to bury the hatchet after the poll if their interests coincide, said the analyst.

Red-shirts puller

Sutin Klungsang, deputy leader of the Pheu Thai Party, said he has confidence in Mr Nattawut and his connections with the red-shirt movement and his oratory skills will be a huge boost to the party's campaign.

Mr Nattawut and the party have no hard feelings toward each other following his exit to join the Thai Raksa Chart Party (TRC) and the party intends to lure back other red-shirt members, not just Mr Nattawut, he said.

In the 2019 general election, the main opposition party was accused of adopting a strategy to tip-toe around the rules which enable small and medium-sized parties to gain more party-list MPs than big parties. However, the tactic did not play out in the way Pheu Thai had intended when one of its alleged proxies, Thai Raksa Chart (TRC), was ordered dissolved by the Constitutional Court ahead of the polls.

The MP for Maha Sarakham expressed confidence the party's goal of securing a landslide win, or at least 250 House seats, is within reach. The Si Sa Ket campaign has received a warm welcome. "The feedback is satisfactory but we won't take any chances. When the election bell rings, we must be ready to face the challenges," he said.

Mr Sutin said the party's job is to prove its sincerity before red-shirt members while noting it will also listen to the group when it comes to selection of candidates.

Phichit Tamool, a Chiang Mai-based red-shirt leader, said Mr Nattawut's return to Pheu Thai will boost the movement's confidence in the party, but it remains to be seen how the party treats the group.

With many red-shirt members switching to support the MFP, the party must find a way to show sincerity and win them back.

"Red-shirt people are free and independent. Nobody owns us. But Mr Nattawut can, of course, draw support," he said. "It isn't just about casting ballots for the party. If this is what the party wants, it won't work.''

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