Tough times ahead for MFP and Pita
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Tough times ahead for MFP and Pita

Pheu Thai playing nice as it foresees party's fate

Two of the three prime ministerial candidates from the Pheu Thai Party — real estate mogul Srettha Thavisin and Paetongtarn Shinawatra — are seen in this photo dated May 12. (Photo: Reuters)
Two of the three prime ministerial candidates from the Pheu Thai Party — real estate mogul Srettha Thavisin and Paetongtarn Shinawatra — are seen in this photo dated May 12. (Photo: Reuters)

As the old powers play hardball, the road to Government House for the Move Forward party (MFP) leader Pita Limjaroenrat remains rough. The MFP won the most votes, 14.4 million of them, in the May 14 election, but its fate still hangs in the air.

More than two weeks have passed and there are no signs the Election Commission (EC) will endorse the official poll results anytime soon. The poll agency has 60 days to do so, but further delays will do no good as the country experiences a power vacuum.

Observers suspect the EC has employed delay tactics while Mr Pita and his party still face numerous challenges in what can only be described as a political obstacle race.

To begin with, the MFP-led coalition needs support from at least 30-40 senators in order to secure 376 votes in parliament, as required by the current charter. Yet, more than a few senators remain reserved about this.

The other main obstacle involves Mr Pita's alleged 42,000 shares in iTV, a fortune that could see him being disqualified as premier and a member of parliament.

Thai constitutions have prohibited people who own stakes in a media company from contesting an election. Yet, in the iTV controversy, Mr Pita argued that he does not own the shares in the TV news company that went off-air 15 years ago. Nevertheless, the shares were listed under his name as he was appointed the executor of his late father's estate. Although iTV no longer produces news, it nevertheless remains in business because the company is fighting a lawsuit to get over 2 billion baht in compensation from the government. Mr Pita and the MFP believe that the petitions are politically motivated.

Political activist Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, a former list-MP under the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), sees things differently.

More importantly, he submitted a petition to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to investigate if the ITV shareholding is tantamount to wealth concealment from the day Mr Pita was sworn in as an MP in 2019.

There is widespread speculation that the EC would disqualify the MFP leader before it endorses the poll result by July 13. If that is the case, the agency is required to submit its rulings to the Constitutional Court for further action. It's also believed that the court might suspend Mr Pita's role as an MP pending its decision. This means the MFP's premiership nomination would be null and void.

There are more than a few media shareholding cases involving members of parliament, and the charter court's rulings have varied. Some, including then-Democrat candidate Charnchai Issarasenarak, managed to get off the legal hook as the Supreme Court ruled the amount of 200 AIS shares he owned was too little to influence the media.

In a different vein, the Kanchanaburi provincial court last year disqualified Surachoke Tivakorn, a local politician from the Thai Pakdee Party who contested a local tambon election in Kanchanaburi province simply because he owned only one single MCOT share worth 5 baht in value.

However, it will come as no surprise if the court is tough with the MFP and gives a harsh verdict like it did to Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who was disqualified and slapped with a 10-year ban from politics.

Some elements believe disqualifying Mr Pita at this early stage would be a safe option for the conservative camp, particularly the junta-appointed Senate. Without the iTV media share case, the Upper House will have to face MFP supporters if it votes against Mr Pita. Whatever happens, Thai politics will hardly be able to avoid turbulence as, in the view of MFP sympathisers, the party won the polls, and the obstacles are regarded as foul play aimed at shooting down the so-called "pro-democracy" party.

Although it is unlikely that the old powers will go to such an extreme and call for the fresh election of all MFP members -- the party's supporters and even normal voters will find this is too much to swallow.

As the MFP and its supporters keep their fingers crossed, Pheu Thai is waiting patiently for a political windfall to grab the chance to lead a coalition. It's believed that fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra foresaw the scenario as he previously mentioned Mr Pita's possible ill fate.

This could explain why Pheu Thai has lately acted more amicably with the MFP, a sharp contrast to its aggressiveness when dealing with tough issues like the pick of the House Speaker.

Pheu Thai probably knows all too well that Mr Pita cannot go very far in this political game. Once he is disqualified, the former opposition bloc leader will rise to power. This is probably why Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew offered a kiss and makeup deal.

If the MFP and its leader tumble, Pheu Thai has a good chance to nominate Srettha Thavisin as its candidate for the premiership. After all, a large number of senators might find the less-radical Pheu Thai member more acceptable.

If Pheu Thai eventually gets the windfall, it may keep the MFP in the coalition. In that case, the onus will fall upon the MFP to decide its own course. There are two options: either the party accepts the deal, playing second fiddle and compromising on its aspirations. It may have to lose some key portfolio positions it had eyed and take whatever Pheu Thai offers. But at least it would still have administrative power and could pursue its policies, albeit watered-down versions. That will set the stage for MFP politicians to learn the ropes of working in a coalition. In that case, voters must understand the party's limitations and wait for another chance next time in four years.

Or the MFP may choose to withdraw from the coalition and instead play the role of the opposition. This option will force Pheu Thai to make a U-turn and embrace Palang Pracharath and some of the other parties in its coalition to garner some 300 MPs in the coalition. It's likely the military-leaning senate is more comfortable with this formula, and would vote for Mr Srettha as prime minister.

With the second option, the MFP may lose a chance to run the country this time, but the party could still keep its support base while proving Pheu Thai's true colours -- its tendency to collude with the military and the conservative side.

This strategy might help the MFP win even more support from its outstanding performance and a strong checks-and-balances mechanism as opposition leader in parliament. In that case, young politicians in the MFP can dream of a landslide in the next poll.

But the two options will see politics massively heat up. The stakes will be high -- not only for the MFP but also for the old powers.

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