PM faces new leadership test

PM faces new leadership test

Thaksin's parole release could lead to party tensions

Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra relaxes by the swimming pool at his Chan Song La residence on soi Charan Sanitwong 39 in Bang Phlat district after being paroled on Sunday. Paetongtarn Shinawatra, his daughter, wrote on her IG that her father hasn't seen the house for 17 years, nor enjoyed fresh air or sunlight during his 180-day detention. (Photo: IG of Paetongtarn Shinawatra)
Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra relaxes by the swimming pool at his Chan Song La residence on soi Charan Sanitwong 39 in Bang Phlat district after being paroled on Sunday. Paetongtarn Shinawatra, his daughter, wrote on her IG that her father hasn't seen the house for 17 years, nor enjoyed fresh air or sunlight during his 180-day detention. (Photo: IG of Paetongtarn Shinawatra)

The political temperature in Thailand is expected to increase following the release yesterday of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on parole.

This development poses a challenge for Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who must now demonstrate his independence in decision-making and show that Thaksin does not wield power.

Thaksin has long been seen as the de facto leader of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, now led by his youngest daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra.

Political observers believe Thaksin will continue to exert influence on politics, especially when Pheu Thai is at the helm of the government.

Prime Minister Srettha faces challenges due to his newcomer status, having entered the political arena less than six months before assuming premiership. Consequently, he has fewer connections with politicians and MPs in the party.

Some analysts anticipate a potential shift in power from Mr Srettha to Thaksin, resulting in a so-called double prime minister phenomenon.

However, Mr Srettha has downplayed such speculation, asserting his authority. "Don't be dramatic. There is only one prime minister under the constitution. That's me," he said.

Nevertheless, Mr Srettha has not ruled out the possibility of considering suggestions from Thaksin. "Today, the country needs cooperation. If the former prime minister would like to make suggestions, there's no one in the government who wouldn't want to hear it."

However, proving his independence in decision-making remains a challenge for Mr Srettha, according to observers.

One pressing issue is the fate of the party's flagship 10,000 baht digital wallet handout scheme. Following recent warnings issued by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) against the scheme, its future hangs in the balance.

Former red-shirt movement leader Jatuporn Promphan, once a staunch Pheu Thai ally, believes the scheme will be crucial in determining Mr Srettha's political fate and the dynamics within the coalition parties.

He suggests there was a deal between Pheu Thai and its key coalition parties, where they would alternate in taking the premiership in exchange for support from the other parties to enable Pheu Thai to form the government after last year's election.

Following the NACC warnings, coalition parties could these them as an excuse to block the scheme.

If so, Mr Srettha might take responsibility for failing to implement a key campaign policy, step down, and allow a candidate from a coalition party to take over, according to Mr Jatuporn.

Thaksin, aged 74, was sentenced to eight years on graft and malfeasance charges. However, his prison term was reduced to one year by HM the King.

He has never spent a night in prison but has been hospitalised at Police General Hospital since early on Aug 23 last year due to undisclosed health issues until his release on Sunday on parole.

"Anything can happen in Thai politics," remarked Mr Jatuporn, on reflecting Thaksin's release.

While it remains unclear whether any of that will materialise, one thing is certain -- politics is likely to get more intense from here on in.

Observers believe Thaksin will play a crucial role in politics even if he has to keep a low profile.

Thanaporn Sriyakul, director of the Political and Public Policy Analysis Institute, told the Bangkok Post that the ex-premier orchestrated the successful formation of the Pheu Thai-led government. Cabinet ministers from Pheu Thai could not have been appointed without Thaksin's blessing, he said.

"But Thaksin is likely to keep a low profile during parole and use social media to communicate. It's a tactic he has long used," said the analyst.

Mr Srettha would remain the frontman, pushing for the roll-out of the digital wallet scheme, while Thaksin will coordinate behind the scenes.

He said the recent appointment of Supawut Saichuea, a former key figure in Pheu Thai's economic gteam during the election campaign, as chairman of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC) indicates the NESDC is being "reorganised".

He suggested the Council of State may be next in line for change.

"The launch of the digital wallet scheme is a must-do. If the programme fails to be implemented, it could spell the end for the party. Legal troubles are a concern for the future, but immediate danger is the failure to implement the scheme," he said.

Thanaporn: Thaksin to go low-key

Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political science lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, agreed Thaksin would remain a central figure in Pheu Thai and has played a key role in setting the party's strategic direction.

Thaksin's release would allow him to exert more direct control over its management and strategy, he said.

However, Mr Yutthaporn believes there is no need for a change in leadership and Mr Srettha is likely to remain. However, a cabinet reshuffle is possible.

Yutthaporn: Srettha to stay in power

A source in Pheu Thai said Thaksin's release will have an impact on the dynamics within the party especially the relationship between party management and MPs.

Party management and MPs have grown distant so Thaksin, widely seen as unifying figure, will bridge the gap and help them push party policies.

A cabinet shake-up is expected after the next censure debate. Those ministers overseeing the Public Health Ministry, the Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry are among those whose performance needs to be reviewed, said the source.

Chusak Sirinil, Pheu Thai's deputy leader, said Thaksin's release would have no direct effect on the party or the Srettha government, although it might boost morale.

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