Pheu Thai and Move Forward: friends or foes?

Pheu Thai and Move Forward: friends or foes?

ABOUT POLITICS: The MFP's apparent apathy towards holding Pheu Thai to account in the digital wallet row points to ties not being that strained / With ex-PM Prayut Chan-o-cha now a privy counsellor, many are wondering how the political landscape will unfold

Thanathorn: Secret Thaksin meeting
Thanathorn: Secret Thaksin meeting

If anyone thought the ruling Pheu Thai Party and the main opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) are perennial enemies, they should think again, according to a political source.

The two parties looked to have broken off ties when Pheu Thai ditched the MFP to form a government with parties from the previous administration.

But the old saying still holds true: there are no permanent friends or foes in politics.

Lending credence to the belief that there is no real bitterness between the two biggest parties is the MFP's reaction, or a lack thereof, to Pheu Thai's very controversial digital wallet money handout scheme.

In fact the MFP, as the primary force on the opposition bench, appears to be letting the government off easy, not only on the wallet policy, but also jailed former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's unusually long hospital stay away from prison. Thaksin has not spent a day or night in prison since he returned from exile overseas to face imprisonment months ago.

The MFP has found itself beset by scandals and allegations involving its members and MPs. However, it has no excuse for underperforming as an opposition party, according to the source.

The only senior MFP figure actively questioning the wallet scheme is Sirikanya Tansakun, a deputy party leader who was at one time groomed to be finance minister. But her weighing up, viewed by some as half-hearted, was merely scratching the policy's surface.

The source said the 10,000-baht digital wallet scheme was not exactly tenable, with hordes of critics, including noted economists and even the Bank of Thailand, pointing to its potential flaws, both from legal and practical points of view. Pheu Thai, however, declared there is no turning back on the policy which the party has maintained will lift the country out of crisis by pulling the economy out of stagnation.

The source has conveyed the critics' remarks that it is out of character for the MFP to be sitting on its hands and to not jump at the chance of grilling Pheu Thai over Thaksin's protracted hospitalisation and the planned heavy spending of taxpayers' money on the wallet policy.

The remarks were directed at the main opposition party at a time when Progressive Movement chairman, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, admitted for the first time that he met Thaksin, who is accused of being the de facto leader of Pheu Thai, in Hong Kong prior to the former premier's return to the kingdom and the government's formation earlier this year.

Mr Thanathorn did not elaborate. However, his admission adds weight to the rumour that a political deal may have been struck between the MFP and Pheu Thai. Mr Thanathorn is no stranger to the MFP, having led its predecessor, the now-defunct Future Forward Party which was dissolved on the Constitutional Court's order because of Mr Thanathorn's illegal loan to the party.

However, Mr Thanathorn told a news talk programme: "I don't hold any political office. If I had cut any political deals, the MFP could have been dissolved." He was referring to laws barring outsiders from wielding influence over a political party.

The source said tongues were wagging over whether the MFP was lying in wait for the right moment to reconcile its perceived differences with Pheu Thai. There is no precluding the possibility of the two parties reuniting and establishing a government together in the future if and when the existing coalition comes to an end.

Former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij has theorised that the MFP may be reluctant to dissect the wallet programme and give it the tough scrutiny it deserves because the party might be wary of the danger of being demonised.

If the MFP's scrutiny was potent enough to contribute to the sinking of the policy, the vast numbers keen on collecting the handout money would turn against the party. They are bound to include the MFP's own supporters.

"An opposition party doesn't have to disagree with the government on every issue. Its duty is to highlight the faults in the government's work.

"In case the faulty policies run substantial risk of breaking the law, the opposition is duty-bound to counter them through all avenues," said Mr Korn in his Facebook.

He added: "That is what checks and balances are all about."

A new chapter begins

Prayut: Still a PM candidate

Upon being appointed by His Majesty the King as a member of the Privy Council, former prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has effectively closed the door on his political career, according to political observers.

Although he was in power for almost a decade, Gen Prayut has a few years left before he reaches the eight-year term limit due to a Constitutional Court ruling that his tenure started on April 6, 2017, when the current charter was promulgated, rather than when he assumed office following the 2014 coup he orchestrated.

Gen Prayut became the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party's chief strategist, seeking to return to power for another term. When the UTN failed to win a mandate and form the government after the May 14 general election, he announced his decision to wash his hands of politics.

While the charter does not provide a process for him to withdraw the candidacy, by joining the Privy Council, which serves as a body of advisers to the monarchy, Gen Prayut has essentially stepped away from the political arena, even if he is still listed as a prime minister candidate of the UTN.

Several observers say Gen Prayut's departure from politics has raised questions about the future of the country's political landscape, especially when the term of the Senate expires in May next year.

Over the past nine years, the public has gained some insight into the inner workings of the power structure, particularly the role of the 250-member Senate in co-electing a prime minister in parliament, according to political watchers.

Handpicked by the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order, the senators overwhelmingly voted for Gen Prayut, who was nominated by the Palang Pracharath Party, to be prime minister, following the 2019 polls.

In August this year when Gen Prayut stepped back, Pheu Thai's prime minister candidate, Srettha Thavisin, won the premiership vote in parliament, surprisingly, with the backing of senators known to be close to Gen Prayut.

Mr Srettha's rise to power is widely seen as a compromise between the old powers and the Pheu Thai Party, whose de-facto leader Thaksin Shinawatra, returned from exile the same day Mr Srettha was elected to the top post.

Olarn Thinbangtieo, a political science lecturer at Burapha University, told the Bangkok Post that the political situation following Gen Prayut's transition from politics is of intrigue.

He pointed to recent remarks made by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Progressive Movement, in a media interview that he met Thaksin in Hong Kong in July ahead of the formation of the government.

Mr Thanathorn, a key supporter of the main opposition Move Forward Party (MFP), described the ruling party as an ally even though they were on opposite sides and the country's future was in the hands of Pheu Thai and the MFP.

"Will the so-called secret deal between the old powers and the Pheu Thai Party remain intact? Will the MFP continue to be soft on the ruling party? People are watching closely," said Mr Olarn.

According to the academic, the MFP is apparently not making the efforts to scrutinise the Pheu Thai-led government as it is supposed to. While the current political situation seems to be favourable to all political parties, it is not in the best public interest, he noted.

But, he dismissed as highly unlikely speculation that Thaksin will be released from jail before he serves at least six months, or half of his reduced jail sentence.

It had been speculated that Thaksin, who has yet to spend a day in jail after his return on Aug 22, stood a chance of benefitting from a royal pardon to mark His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great's birthday on Dec 5.

However, Justice Minister Thawee Sodsong said on Wednesday that Thaksin has not requested a second royal pardon for a further jail term reduction.

Neither Thaksin nor his family has sought a second royal pardon since he was granted the first one, which saw his eight-year jail term cut to one year by His Majesty the King.

The justice minister also said the Corrections Department will consider doctors' opinions before deciding whether to extend Thaksin's hospitalisation outside prison further, to 120 days, at the end of this month.

Thaksin was placed in quarantine at the Bangkok Remand Prison and after experiencing chest pain, hypertension and low blood oxygen on the first night, he was moved to the Police General Hospital where he has remained since.

According to Mr Olarn, it is likely to be in the old powers' interest if Thaksin, who is believed to be the political puppet master, remains confined given that the MFP is pushing for a political amnesty and wholesale charter amendment.

"I believe the old powers won't risk it with him although he is said to be pulling the strings from the 14th floor [of the Police General Hospital]. They must have realised the whole ball game could change if he is freed," he said.

Mr Olarn noted that Gen Prayut's new role will keep his supporters happy for the time being. "Let's wait and see what happens after May next year [when the Senate's term expires]," he said.

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