Reprieve for the old guard?
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Reprieve for the old guard?

ABOUT POLITICS: Wan Muhamad Noor Matha becoming House speaker may have delayed a clear-out of older Pheu Thai Party stalwarts v If parliament fails to elect MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat as prime minister, who then steps up to take his place?

House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, fifth from right, and his two deputies, Padipat Suntiphada, fourth from right, and Pichet Chuamuangphan, sixth from right, prepare to receive the royal command confirming their appointments on Friday. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)
House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, fifth from right, and his two deputies, Padipat Suntiphada, fourth from right, and Pichet Chuamuangphan, sixth from right, prepare to receive the royal command confirming their appointments on Friday. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

The election of Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, former leader of the Prachachat Party, as House speaker this week may have seen the Pheu Thai Party's chances of ushering in a new, younger beginning slip through its fingers.

Despite the May 14 election now long gone, some senior members of the second-largest party may be finding it hard to sleep at night.

They have every reason to feel anxious, especially after a spectacularly poor showing at the polls, which is something the party cannot afford to ignore, according to an observer.

In fact, it has been reported that a major shake-up is on the way in Pheu Thai, which is looking to rebrand itself and hopefully "young" itself up in the process.

The election result, which handed the party 141 seats, was a nasty wake-up call for Pheu Thai, which found itself relegated from being the biggest party in the 2019 poll to first runner-up this time.

Pheu Thai, still grappling with the humiliation of the electoral defeat, is not about to place an elephant in the room by overlooking the critical mistakes it made, which saw the party fall way short of its target of scoring a landslide win with 300-plus seats.

The observer said it would not be unrealistic to expect that some party heads will roll, and that will likely happen before cabinet appointments are decided.

The election defeat might also bring an opportunity as it allows for the party to be overhauled, especially in the strategy area and top executives associated with running Pheu Thai.

Paetongtarn: Viewed as 'agent of change'

Change can already be seen with the installation of Paetongtarn "Ung Ing" Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, as head of the Pheu Thai Family, a post unprecedented in the party's history and which is thought to be on par with the party leadership.

Thaksin has consistently shrugged off accusations he is Pheu Thai's de facto leader.

Ms Paetongtarn's rise has unnerved some of the party old guard. It came at a time when the Move Forward Party (MFP) was fast gaining ground ahead of the election as it attracted young voters -- the MFP's main support base -- while also expanding its influence over the politically-active, working-age population.

The rapid surge in popularity propelled the MFP to victory, making it the biggest party with 151 MPs.

Watching the MFP overtake it in the election, Pheu Thai may be tempted to emulate the MFP's poll success and walk a similar path. But before it can do that, Pheu Thai would need to replace some stalwarts in charge of directing the party, according to the observer.

The business of placing new and younger blood on the party's executive board to implement a transformation plan may be left until after the formation of the new government.

However, the observer reckoned an early start to an internal shake-up could be visible sooner rather than later.

Election Commission certification of MPs preluded the selection of a House speaker, which took place on Tuesday, much sooner than originally planned.

The tussle for speaker had boiled down to three candidates -- Mr Wan, the MFP MP for Phitsanulok, Padipat Suntiphada, and Pheu Thai MP, Pichet Chuamuangphan.

Mr Wan was chosen with Mr Padipat his first deputy and Mr Pichet his second.

Prior to the speaker election, Pheu Thai said the MFP should make a concession since its leader Pita Limjaroenrat is in the running for prime minister with the full support of Pheu Thai.

Initially, Pheu Thai leader Dr Cholnan Srikaew was heavily tipped to be the speaker. If he had been elected, he would have had to have stepped down as Pheu Thai leader, necessitating a reshuffle of the party executive board.

With Mr Wan as House speaker, which has averted a showdown between Pheu Thai and the MFP, Pheu Thai may have missed the opportunity for an internal overhaul and bring younger executives in to run its affairs.

A source close to the matter said Ms Paetongtarn is being viewed as an agent of change who is well-positioned to modernise Pheu Thai with the blessing of her father, who is a highly respected figure in Pheu Thai.

Pheu Thai realises it must shape up. An infusion of new-generation executives will be necessary for changes to be made so the party can compete against the MFP in future polls and emerge on top.

In the meantime, an overhaul could provide the opportunity to sideline some party heavyweights who underperformed in the recent election.

Looking at alternatives

Now that the Move Forward Party (MFP) and Pheu Thai have settled their House speaker dispute, the stage is set for the selection of the country's next leader.

Newly elected House speaker, Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, has set July 13 for the crucial vote, and despite the MFP-led prospective coalition's pledge to back MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat for the post, it remains far from certain who will get the job.

Pita: Uncertain over Senate backing

Under the constitution, a candidate needs the support of at least half of the 750 members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, or 376 lawmakers in total, to become prime minister.

The coalition commands 312 House seats and needs another 64 votes from outside the bloc or the Senate to get Mr Pita elected.

It is not known how many other MPs and senators are prepared to back him due to the MFP's controversial policies.

Analysts seem to agree that the prime minister vote will not be quick and multiple rounds of voting may be needed.

However, Mr Wan, who resigned as leader of the Prachachat Party after being elected unopposed on Tuesday, has indicated that although there is no limit to how many times parliament can meet to elect the prime minister, he is unlikely to let the issue drag on.

According to him, if Mr Pita fails to secure the 376 votes he needs in the first round, the MFP leader can expect one or two more chances before "Plan B" must be seriously explored. A constitutionally recognised and well-accepted option would be to hand the second biggest party, Pheu Thai, the right to lead the government's formation.

"The House speaker cannot afford to persist [in calling further rounds of voting] because members of parliament may not want to attend, and a lack of quorum would ensue.

"Most importantly, the eight parties [trying to form a coalition] must sincerely show that they have tried their best [to support Mr Pita's bid] so we can move on and work together," Mr Wan said.

There are several ways this could play out if Mr Pita cannot secure approval after several attempts, according to observers.

The most likely is that Pheu Thai will seize the opportunity to put forward one of its three prime ministerial candidates -- Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Srettha Thavisin and Chaikasem Nitisiri -- for parliament to consider.

Mr Srettha, the property tycoon, is expected to get the nod if the opportunity presents itself.

The MFP, according to critics, has backed itself into a corner by proposing Mr Pita as the party's sole candidate for prime minister, according to observers.

A highly placed Pheu Thai source said that there has been no word from the MFP or Mr Pita as to what they will do if Mr Pita cannot reach the 376-vote threshold.

"As much as the party wants to put Mr Srettha's name forward, we must honour the deal [of supporting Mr Pita]. We know the senators aren't fond of our candidates, but they are more acceptable than the MFP leader.

"If the MFP steps back after Mr Pita fails, we think we can win the required votes in parliament. But that will happen as long as the other bloc doesn't nominate Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) leader Gen Prawit Wongsuwon for the post," said the source.

According to analysts, another possibility that cannot be ruled out is an attempt to form a minority coalition by the current government bloc, which has 188 members.

In this scenario, Gen Prawit would be nominated as the bloc's prime ministerial candidate rather than Anutin Charnvirakul, leader of the Bhumjaithai Party, which is the third-largest party with 71 seats.

Gen Prawit has solid connections with the senators, and if he does step into the ring, the prime minister selection process will probably be over in a single round of voting.

According to the Pheu Thai source, the PPRP may be interested in forming a minority government because it can secretly poach MPs from the MFP-led bloc whenever hands need to be raised in parliament to pass important legislation and eventually become a functional government.

Initially, it is believed as many as 50 MPs from the MFP and Pheu Thai can be lured to cross the floor.

A minority government, if it happens, is expected to last at least eight months, during which period the budget expenditure bill for the 2024 fiscal year will be pushed through, according to the source.

The fiscal legislation is expected to be tabled for debate in September with a three-month scrutiny process. If the bill fails to clear the House, the House will be dissolved, paving the way for a snap election.

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