It's tough at the top

It's tough at the top

ABOUT POLITICS: Pheu Thai and the MFP have both reached high points since the polls but dodgy policies and scandals threaten to undermine them v The oldest political party could get its first woman leader now Watanya Bunnag has entered the Democrat leadership race

Srettha: Pushing digital wallet policy
Srettha: Pushing digital wallet policy

A question has been going back and forth within political pundit circles these past few weeks: What party would be in the best position to win a general election if one was held tomorrow?

Several pundits have taken a long pause and failed to produce a decisive answer.

In the last election, the Move Forward Party (MFP) managed to sprint past the Pheu Thai Party in the campaign and emerge the winner with 150 seats, a mere 10 more than Pheu Thai.

Pheu Thai became the second-largest party and had to contend with a humiliating defeat and the painful disappointment of failing to meet its ambitious target of scoring a landslide victory with at least 300 seats.

The two parties were close allies when they were in the so-called pro-democracy camp against the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration. However, their strong ties were put to the test when the MFP captured most seats and emerged as the election victor.

Despite its repeated attempts to have the Senate back its coalition line-up, the MFP could not get enough senators to rally behind its proposed coalition, which included Pheu Thai.

In the end, the opportunity to forge a government was passed to Pheu Thai, which succeeded in forging a coalition with unlikely allies in the form of the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, the two mainstays of the pro-military wing.

That left the MFP with no choice but to let reality sink in and return to the opposition benches, albeit this time with the reward of main opposition party status.

Observers, however, maintain there has been no happy ending for Pheu Thai or a reversal in political fortunes in the pipeline for the MFP.

Pheu Thai lost no time in hitting the ground running. The party figured it had to keep its support base intact at all costs, with the MFP breathing down its neck. The way it sees to preserve its political strength is to honour its campaign pledges; the quicker, the better.

Prime Minister and Finance Minister Srettha Thavisin has prioritised Pheu Thai's flagship digital wallet programme, although the policy has grown more controversial with every passing day. After the premier kept people guessing for weeks, he finally revealed that the money to fund the scheme, at a whopping 500 billion baht, was about to be obtained through a loan despite having previously ruled out borrowing.

The government also revised the eligibility of digital money recipients to screen out wealthy people. What was seen as a vehicle for launching the economic multiplier effect to intensify growth became ridiculed for regressing into a welfare programme and not the formidable economic spinner it had been touted to be.

The prospect of a legal entanglement for the prime minister from his issuing an executive decree to take out a loan to run the scheme has also triggered fear of capital flight. Several economists have warned of dire consequences from recklessly running the policy.

If Pheu Thai is in the hot seat, the MFP is no better off. The main opposition party has been suffering from endless transgressions involving its members.

One analyst said it would be natural to think Pheu Thai's misfortunes would be the MFP's gain. However, the MFP itself has been embroiled in controversy highlighted by the recent expulsion of two MPs accused of sexually assaulting women.

The fact that one of them, a Prachin Buri MP, was ordered purged by party executives and MPs immediately, while the other, a Bangkok MP, was initially spared the axe only to be expelled days later, prompted accusations the party had resorted to double-standards. The Bangkok MP was said to be close to some party executives who may have had his back.

For a party that preaches the value of rights, freedom and gender equality, the alleged sexual assaults have dragged the MFP's name through the mud, and the stain seems indelible, said the analyst.

The fiasco has had a profound impact on the MFP as it fumbles to find its feet and fight off torrents of bad publicity that has seen its role as the main opposition party emasculated.

Critics say both Pheu Thai and the MFP should consider conducting a serious review of their popularity ratings and whether they remain capable of pulling off similar results as in the previous election if a new poll is called tomorrow.

In the midst of what some critics call a nosedive in public confidence in the two parties, voices are beginning to reverberate on social media, comparing the achievements of the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration with the Srettha government.

The critics have even gone on to liken Gen Prayut to an active figure in stealth mode, ready to spring back into action. After all, he remains a prime ministerial candidate of the UTN.

Step forward, 'Madam Dear'

After a leadership vacuum lasting nearly seven months, the Democrat Party is poised to elect a new leader.

Watanya: A Democrat newbie

The candidacy of Watanya "Madam Dear" Bunnag has presented a new dynamic to the upcoming leadership contest and sparked talk that the party may be on the verge of electing a woman leader.

Ms Watanya, who heads the party's political innovation team, announced her decision to vie for the party's top post on Wednesday ahead of the Dec 9 meeting to elect a new leader and an executive committee.

Her goal is to make the country's oldest political party great again by reviving its political ideology and promoting a new pro-liberal economic ideology, a welfare state system and power decentralisation.

Ms Watanya's entry into the leadership race has brought a breath of fresh air, although she is a relative newbie in the country's oldest political party. She defected from the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) in August last year, a time when the Democrats saw the departure of many veterans.

She contested the May 14 polls in the party-list system but failed to make the cut due to the Democrats' poor performance. The party won only 25 House seats, down from 52 in the 2019 general election.

The embarrassing defeat prompted then-leader Jurin Laksanawisit to step down in a show of responsibility. However, an internal disagreement over who should take the helm forced two meetings to elect a new leader to collapse due to a lack of a quorum.

One camp led by party patriarch Chuan Leekpai favours former Democrat leader and ex-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva to return, while the other, loyal to acting party leader Chalermchai Sri-on, backs acting deputy leader Narapat Kaewthong.

Under the rules governing the leadership contest, an MP's vote carries more weight than that of an ordinary party member at a 70 to 30 ratio. Mr Chalermchai is said to have 21 MPs under his belt and would have secured the party leadership earlier had those who wanted Mr Abhisit's return not stayed away from the meetings in a tactical game that resulted in the lack of a quorum.

To prevent a meeting collapse on Dec 9 and another failed attempt to pick a new leader, the party is taking a fail-safe measure by recruiting "members in reserve".

Before Ms Watanya declared her candidacy, analysts anticipated the leadership contest would be a struggle between the two factions. Now that a third candidate has thrown her hat into the ring, they should seriously start considering the possibility of the Democrats having a woman leader.

The former under-23 national football team manager represents a younger generation of politicians and offers a compromise between the two factions competing for control, according to observers. Furthermore, having a woman as leader can also boost the party's image as it tries to make a political comeback.

A Democrat Party source said the prospect of Mr Abhisit returning as leader is dim because it means the party will sit on the opposition benches until the next election.

Mr Abhisit is said to not mind the Democrats being in opposition and his camp believes that role will help restore the party's dignity and popularity. But MPs led by Mr Chalermchai are reportedly looking to join the coalition and they must take control of the party to get to decide party policy.

Ms Watanya, on the other hand, is acceptable to all groups within the party who reportedly want to give her a chance, and she is considered a suitable and agreeable option in the current situation. However, if Mr Chalermchai supports her, he will be breaking his promise with Mr Narapat, whom he approached to contest for the party leader post, according to the party source.

"While the choice of party leader is undecided, he [Mr Chalermchai] will definitely support Dech-it Khaothong for the secretary-general post. It's possible that he may contest the party leadership himself if he can't decide between Ms Watanya and Mr Narapat," said the source.

Phichai Ratnatilaka Na Bhuket, a political scientist from the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), sees Ms Watanya as a more favourable candidate than Mr Narapat despite her relatively young age and lack of political experience.

"But when compared with Mr Narapat, she has a better image. Although she isn't an MP this time around, her role in the party raises her profile and makes her stand out. The prospect of the party having a woman leader is also enticing," he said.

However, her chances of assuming the party's top post depend on both the factions that support Mr Abhisit and Mr Chalermchai, who may decide to enter the race himself, said Mr Phichai.

According to the academic, the Democrat Party could win back Bangkok voters who turned their backs on the party in the 2015 and 2019 elections if it goes for Ms Watanya.

"If Mr Chalermchai wins the post, I don't think the party's supporters in Bangkok will come to terms with it because he doesn't align with their expectations [for the party leader]," he said.

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