A Provincial Administrative Organisation election barometer
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A Provincial Administrative Organisation election barometer

ABOUT POLITICS: With no MFP, a local Pathum Thani poll is being seen as a litmus test for what Pheu Thai and Bhumjaithai want to achieve v  Constitutional Court's Senate election law ruling will not save Election Commission from flak over its handling of the poll

Kamronwit: From protege to rival
Kamronwit: From protege to rival

A turf war has been declared in Pathum Thani, which is being fought covertly by titans of national politics, according to a source.

The Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO) chairman election taking place there on June 30 provides an insight into the dynamics generated by the political alignments involving the major players in the coalition and opposition camps.

The ruling Pheu Thai Party, which saw its long-time dominance in Pathum Thani destroyed in the last election by the main opposition Move Forward Party (MFP), is electing its PAO chairman, and the race looks set to showcase Pheu Thai's determination to revive its popularity. It will also see coalition partner the Bhumjaithai Party bid to expand support beyond its traditional heartland in the lower Northeast and the MFP possibly throwing its support behind Bhumjaithai, according to the source.

This PAO contest grabbed the attention of many observers when paroled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra went to the province and called for the red shirts, who make up the core of Pheu Thai's followers, to consolidate and rally behind the ruling party.

His call, voiced during an event to celebrate the monk ordination of a son of one of Pathum Thani's well-known political scions, was interpreted as the first clear sign of Pheu Thai trying to reclaim top spot in Thai politics.

According to critics, despite not being a Pheu Thai member, Thaksin is increasingly becoming a party mover and shaker at his own peril. The former premier has repeatedly denied pulling the party's strings. He was apparently distancing himself from a possible backlash with the law barring non-members of a party from meddling in its affairs.

Pheu Thai needs all the help it can muster to get back on track after almost a decade in the political wilderness following the 2014 coup engineered by the National Council for Peace and Order.

The fear is that Pheu Thai may not be able to revive its popularity in time for the next general election in just over three years.

The party figures that to rebuild its red shirt support, it must start from the ground up.

Thaksin, perceived as Pheu Thai's de-facto leader, is believed to be the best person to woo the red shirts back to the party and has been on a red shirt charm offensive, which has taken him from Chiang Mai to Nonthaburi to Nakhon Ratchasima and Pathum Thani.

Winning seats in a general election requires forging connections with constituents, and the litmus test of this is in Local Administrative Organisation (LAO) and PAO elections.

The source said many politicians who aspire to become an MP must have occupied high office in an LAO or must capitalise on the political power of influential figures in an LAO so they can command a wide support base needed to win.

In Pathum Thani, Pheu Thai has courted several influential families in local politics to help it take down what opinion polls suggested is its most formidable rival, Pol Lt Gen Kamronwit Toopkrajang, a former Pathum Thani PAO chairman, in next week's PAO poll.

Ironically, Pol Lt Gen Kamronwit was once touted as a Thaksin protege, loyal to Pheu Thai. The ex-police commissioner had held the former premier in such high esteem that he had him pin a new rank insignia on his uniform to signify he was deeply honoured after receiving a police force promotion.

However, after Thaksin fled into exile overseas in the aftermath of the 2006 coup, Pol Lt Gen Kamronwit forayed into local politics in Pathum Thani, where he later cultivated strong connections with a Bhumjaithai keen to spread its wings in the lower Central Plains constituencies.

Bhumjaithai's strategy is to secure Pathum Thani and work its way up the Chao Phraya River to win seats in neighbouring Ayutthaya, which shares a border with Ang Thong, currently represented in parliament by Paradorn Prissanananthakul from Bhumjaithai.

Pol Lt Gen Kamronwit's links with Bhumjaithai did not sit well with Thaksin, who has backed Charn Phuangphet as Pheu Thai's candidate in the June 30 PAO election. Mr Charn counts on red-shirt voters to rally behind him to stand a chance of returning as PAO leader.

However, the odds appear to be stacking against him, according to a recent Nida (National Institute of Development Administration) survey.

It found 31% favoured Pol Lt Gen Kamronwit, ahead of Mr Charn at 28%, with 17% undecided.

Many, among the 17%, are believed to be supporters of the MFP, which has not fielded a candidate for the election. It is natural that they may be having a hard time choosing between the candidate from Pheu Thai and Pol Lt Gen Kamronwit, who is running under the Khon Rak Pathum (Love Pathum) group.

The MFP, which almost wiped Pheu Thai out in last year's general election in the province after managing to win all but one of the seats at stake, surprised many when it announced it would not contest the PAO election and not endorse a candidate from another party.

The party said it was pressed for time to find a suitable candidate.

A source familiar with the matter said the MFP was heavily embroiled in an internal conflict over the selection of a candidate.

Another observer said if MFP voters were to choose a candidate, a large consideration might involve Pheu Thai having been accused of "double-crossing" the MFP when the ruling party dissolved their alliance in favour of forming the current government with conservative parties last year.

If many MFP supporters still feel hurt and decide to be vindictive, Pol Lt Gen Kamronwit might end up benefitting while Bhumjaithai, which is thought to be on friendly terms with him, will possibly make some inroads in Pathum Thani.

Not out of the woods yet

While the Constitutional Court's ruling on the legality of the Senate election law effectively gives the go-ahead for the final stage of the Senate contest, it does not mean the Election Commission (EC) can sit back and relax.

Ittiporn: Nothing can stop Senate poll

Under the court's scrutiny were Sections 36, 40(3), 41(3) and 42(3) of the organic law governing the Senate election. The ruling this week was made in response to a petition initiated by a group of Senate candidates.

Section 36 involves the self-introduction of the candidates, while the other three sections deal with voting -- both in the same group and across professional groups -- at the district, provincial and national levels.

The petitioners claimed that some regulations prescribed in the organic law appeared to favour candidates with more resources and created a window for interference. They also argued the law contained loopholes, making voting at all three levels vulnerable to manipulation.

All nine judges ruled unanimously on Tuesday that these four sections were aligned with the charter, clearing the way for national-level voting on June 26 to proceed as planned.

However, according to observers, the ruling does not resolve potential disputes and legal issues that the EC may face over its management of the three-week Senate race in which only the applicants are allowed to vote.

There have been reports of irregularities, such as people being offered money to register and vote for specific candidates and applicants lying about their qualifications. The EC, meanwhile, stands accused of taking no action, resorting to what is known as an "endorsing first, disqualify later" policy.

With these allegations flying around, the poll agency should brace itself for legal challenges as soon as the contest ends, according to observers.

EC chairman Ittiporn Boonpracong said earlier that the commission had received 80 complaints as of June 16 about irregularities and collusion at both the district and provincial levels.

Mr Ittiporn said complaints can be filed with the EC or the Supreme Court within three days of an election day.

He insisted nothing can stop the Senate poll from running its course. "We will try to ensure an investigation into complaints will be finished quickly. We will ensure justice for all candidates," the EC chairman said.

According to Olarn Thinbangtieo, a political science lecturer at Burapha University in Chon Buri province, the complaints suggest attempts to fix the Senate election and reflect the EC's shortcomings in handling the race.

Applicants who believe the EC's handling of the Senate poll is unfair should take the poll commission to the Supreme Court's Election Division and challenge its "endorse first, disqualify later" approach, he said.

"The EC tends to deal with election fraud complaints through this practice, which explains why it went ahead with the Senate election despite knowing it will face this type of problem," said Mr Olarn.

According to the analyst, a reserve list of 100 Senate candidates is a backup plan to resolve the situation where a senator has to step down. But he doubted that the reserve list can be a practical solution if winners are disqualified later due to fraud.

"The candidates in reserve may come in handy in some cases, but things will be complicated in others [especially when fraud is involved].

"These complaints may well lead back to the district-level voting, which had two rounds of intra-group and inter-group selection," he said.

After 200 senators are selected, there will also be a reserve list of five candidates in each of the 20 professional groups.

Jade Donavanik, a legal scholar and ex-adviser to a charter drafting panel, said the Constitutional Court's ruling affirms that the organic law is constitutionally sound. However, it by no means endorses the EC's handling of the Senate election.

The alleged irregularities widely reported suggest the EC's handling of the election has been found wanting, which has allegedly allowed political or interest groups to meddle and fix the vote, he said.

"People who feel they did not receive fairness or lost the right to contest [the election] can take the matter to the court," he said.

In the final round of voting on June 26 at the Impact Muang Thong Thani in Nonthaburi, a total of 3,000 candidates will vie for 200 seats. The EC plans to complete the voting in one day, with the official results likely announced on July 2.

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