Pheu Thai ups stakes in race

Pheu Thai ups stakes in race

Sceptics worry about giving the party too much power.

Key figures of the Pheu Thai Party introduce its candidates at Thammasat University in Pathum Thani on March 17. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Key figures of the Pheu Thai Party introduce its candidates at Thammasat University in Pathum Thani on March 17. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

The Pheu Thai Party has recently revised its MP target, aiming to capture 310 House seats in the next polls — an ambitious scale-up from the 250 seats — and form a solid single-party government. The move is seen by academics as a major task and tactic to intensify the campaign and to get rid of the pro-Prayut camp.

“Pheu Thai is now seeking a popular mandate and win at least 310 House seats to get rid of the Prayut regime and form a Pheu Thai government,” Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew told the party’s general assembly on March 9, referring to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

The biggest opposition party is looking to surpass its election success in 2011 when it won 265 seats and saw fugitive former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra rise to power. The now-dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party, reborn later as People Power Party and Pheu Thai, achieved a historical landslide victory in the 2005 election, gaining 377 seats.

As a result, analysts have done the math and found Pheu Thai’s landslide goal improbable even though they agree the party is set to make more gains in the next poll after the reintroduction of the two-ballot system, they told the Bangkok Post.

Pheu Thai’s new MP target is only a tactic to dodge questions surrounding any post-election alliance with the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and maintain the campaign momentum as the election shifts into high gear, according to analysts.

However, Pheu Thai stalwarts insist the party has a shot at pulling off an election landslide and winning as many as 310 seats. The target is set based on the party’s popularity and that of its presumptive prime ministerial candidate, Paetongtarn Shinawatra. Also, the party is looking to strategic voting to help it collect the votes it needs to prevent Gen Prayut’s return.

‘Psychological impact’

Pheu Thai has adopted the “landslide” victory call from the start of its pre-election campaign, indicating how serious it is about winning the election and ending Gen Prayut’s rule.

For most, landslide simply means “more than half” of the total number of MPs, 250 out of 500 House seats. But with polling day drawing closer, that’s no longer good enough, according to Boonyu Korpornprasert, deputy director of Institute of Research and Innovation, Krirk University.

The party is communicating with supporters and possibly undecided voters and setting a clear target will have a psychological impact on them, he said.

“Pheu Thai is saying if people want it to be the government they must chip in. And 310 sounds better than ‘landslide’ which is rather vague. The figure 310 is strong and to the point while ‘landslide’ isn’t pressing enough,” he said.

Mr Boonyu does not believe Pheu Thai’s new target will prompt its rivals to counteract with a scare tactic that helped MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra of the Democrat Party win the gubernatorial election in 2013.

The phrase, ”if you’re not voting for us, he will definitely win” — with “he” referring to any candidates linked to Thaksin — was used to rally voters to support the Democrat politician.

“This situation is different. Pheu Thai is aware that Ms Paetongtarn, the youngest daughter of Thaksin, can’t take the party far and it has roped in property tycoon Srettha Thavisin to talk about economic issues,” he said.

Pheu Thai has been pestered with questions about a secret deal with the PPRP. Under the deal, it would form a government and nominate PPRP leader Gen Prawit Wongsuwon as the next prime minister.

Boonyu Korpornprasert, deputy director of Institute of Research and Innovation, Krirk University.

Olarn Tinbangtiew, a lecturer at the faculty of political science and law, Burapha University, said people are sceptical whether the party will keep its promise to strip the coup-appointed senate of its power to co-select a prime minister.

Raising the MP target to 310 can keep the pressure off Pheu Thai and does not rule out the possibility of a Pheu Thai-PPRP tie-up after the next polls, said Mr Olarn.

“Ms Paetongtarn, Mr Srettha or Dr Cholnan have avoided saying anything close to making commitment. The 310-seat target can keep the question at bay. But for me, these people don’t have the deciding power in the party,” he said.

He reckons that Pheu Thai’s higher target will intensify the campaign and opponents will come up with tactics to persuade voters to vote for them.

“Political parties seem to believe there will be no decisive winner and so they have a chance to form a government. The United Thai Nation [UTN] Party, Bhumjaithai, and even the Move Forward Party [MFP] have their own support base and no single party can command a majority,” he said.

According to Mr Olarn, while the political landscape has apparently changed from conservatives versus liberals to the pro-Thaksin vs pro-Prayut camps, every party is bent on pushing populist policies to court favour with voters.

Olarn Thinbangtieo

Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said the 310-seat target, which coincides with the defection of the Sam Mitr group to the party, is more likely to keep the campaign momentum going.

“People question whether a landslide win can stop the regime-appointed senate from having a decisive role in co-electing a prime minister. So the party raised the number to 310, which remains in the realm of possibility,” he said.

Mr Yutthaporn said political polarisation remains, so intense rivalry should be expected at the election.

‘‘The UTN doesn’t need to worry too much about the number of seats it wins because it can lure renegade MPs from other parties to get more than 250 votes." Yuttaporn Issarachai A political science lecturer

‘Not out of thin air’

The party’s 310-seat target is set based on growing public frustration with the Prayut government and the party’s jump in popularity, according to Pheu Thai stalwart Phumtham Wechayachai.

People are fed up with the Prayut government which has failed to solve the country’s problems despite being in power for more than eight years and they want changes, he said.

Pheu Thai has taken a lead in polls from the start with media outlets and pollsters predicting it to win about 220 seats — 40 from the party-list system and 180 from the constituency system. The party has grown more confident as the campaign continues, he said.

According to Mr Phumtham, the party was stunned by Ms Paetongtarn’s jump in popularity which climbed from 8% at the start of the pre-election campaign to 48% now. Her approval rating is higher than that of Yingluck in the 2011 elections.

“These are factors making us believe we can get to 310 seats. In the southern region where the party’s popularity is virtually non-existent, we are definitely getting party-list votes. In the constituency system, we’ll have to select the right candidates,” Mr Phumtham said.

Strategic voting is also important and the party that stands the best chance against the Prayut regime is the one with strong democratic foundations, he said, adding undecided voters account for 20%-30% and if they go for strategic voting, they will vote for Pheu Thai.

“If they don’t vote for us, it’ll be Prayut. If they don’t want Prayut but they vote for other small parties, what chance do they have against him?

“We are the only party that can fight Gen Prayut, and we won’t say it if we’re not confident. The political situation, public sentiment, prime ministerial candidates ... The MP target of 310-plus isn’t too difficult,” he said.

Mr Phumtham shrugged off speculation this strategy could backfire, saying pundits have their own theories that may not reflect ordinary people’s views.

The party expects to win 50 seats out of the 100 party-list seats and 260 seats out of 400 seats in the constituency system, he said. Pheu Thai will conduct its own poll after the candidacy registration.

Phumtham: Targeting coup maker

‘Double-edged sword’

Sathit Wongnongtoey, a Democrat MP for Trang, said while Pheu Thai’s landslide goal has given the party’s supporters something to cheer about, it has spooked the anti-Thaksin camp and political sceptics.

Pheu Thai is trying to sell an idea of a unified single-party government to solve problems, which reminds people of what happened after the Thai Rak Thai Party won an overwhelming vote in the 2005 election.

The “tax-free” sale of shares in Shin Corp to Temasek Holdings, corruption scandals, street protests and the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin from power all come to mind, he said.

“People will wonder if the vicious cycle would return,” he said.

The Democrat veteran said the landslide target has also prompted the return of several groups to Pheu Thai including a Chon Buri-based faction led by Sonthaya Kunplome and Sam Mitr faction led by Somsak Thepsutin.

Its political rivals will be forced to revise their strategy and the campaign will be extremely intense with Pheu Thai drawing most attacks, he said.

In the northeastern region voters are being advised to vote for Pheu Thai in the party-list system if they support Thaksin, but never cast ballots for candidates who fail to engage with the community.

“The 310-seat target is the strategy devised by Pheu Thai to encourage people to vote for winners and make their vote count. But it is also spooking its rivals and sceptics who may band together,” he said.

It will be an uphill task for Pheu Thai to capture 310 House seats in part because the party also has its own internal rifts, according to Mr Sathit.

Sathit: Dems have internal issues

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