Poster girl's poll pose
Pheu Thai says Paethongtan Shinawatra no mere wallflower
The Pheu Thai Party sprang a surprise when it unveiled Paethongtan Shinawatra as the party's chief adviser on participation and innovation at a recent party assembly.
The main opposition party also is banking on Ms Paethongtan, 35, leading it into the next election and emerging from the battle victorious and mighty.
While experts have reckoned the youngest daughter of fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra could be a rallying force for the party, they doubt she could pack a punch and hand the Pheu Thai a landslide win in the next polls.
The party has even incorporated "landslide" in its catchphrase, just to show how serious it is working to accomplish its goal of taking the next election by storm.
After all, the party has been in the opposition since being toppled in the May 2014 military coup which installed Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister. It thinks the time has come to reclaim Government House.
Pheu Thai's rebrand
Paethongtan Shinawatra, youngest daughter of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, greets reporters.
Some academics agreed Ms Paethongtan's role in the party reinforced Thaksin's inseparability with Pheu Thai. Even its slogan "Pheu Thai Tomorrow" is scribbled in Thaksin's handwriting. The Paethongtan factor forms the centrepiece of a plan to rebrand Pheu Thai and reinvent the party after a decade in opposition.
Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said Ms Paethongtan is been positioned as Thaksin's political heir and an embodiment of a new Pheu Thai.
Thaksin has said the "surprise", a reference to his youngest daughter being thrust into the party, would convince defectors to return to Pheu Thai. "Anyone bankrolled to leave will refund the cash and come right back," he said, adding Pheu Thai politicians see Thaksin in his daughter.
Unlike her ex-prime minister aunt, Yingluck Shinawatra, who rose to the premiership after spending just 49 days engaged in active politics, Ms Paethongtan claims she has been following politics since she was eight. She is from a generation raised in the midst of a sustained political conflict, who is directly affected by it. Her experience might translate into votes for Pheu Thai, said Mr Yutthaporn.
Ms Paethongtan also could provide a new layer of power in the party that strikes a hierarchical balance. While Dr Surapong Suebwonglee, a close aide to Thaksin, heads a faction of senior political figures in Pheu Thai, the newly-elected party leader Cholnan Srikaew belongs to a generation of middle-aged members. Ms Paethongtan is the forefront of the camp, who can connect with the younger politicians.
In addition, she has made the party more accepting of the young politicians' identity. Hosting a fashion show with MPs gracing the runway was apparently meant to dismantle Pheu Thai's conservative facade and rival the dynamism of its youth-appealing opposition ally, the Move Forward Party (MFP), Mr Yutthaporn said.
Doubts abound for 'poster girl'
The political scientist noted a few drawbacks in Ms Paethongtan's involvement in the party. Even when it remains unclear whether she will be nominated by the Pheu Thai to be its prime ministerial candidate in the future, she has been bombarded with criticism of being a poster girl for the Thaksin political dynasty.
"But while the Shinawatra bloodline might be a liability in the eyes of many middle-class voters who value a politician's independence over her being susceptible to the influence of her father, the Pheu Thai relies mostly on constituency voters in the provinces who might not care too much about the issue of dynastic politicians," he said.
There are also questions whether Ms Paethongtan was genuine in trailblazing the way for greater recognition of young politicians in Pheu Thai. The lecturer said he believed the unveiling of Ms Paethongtan as chief adviser was to test the water and sound out people's reaction before the party decides if it will nominate her as its prime ministerial candidate.
Her nomination, however, could invite more hostile accusations. Ms Paethongtan found herself haunted by an old allegation concerning her entrance exam score irregularity which saw her landing a place in the Political Science Faculty at Chulalongkorn University while her father was prime minister.
Mr Yutthaporn said Thaksin's representation through his daughter in Pheu Thai was vital for galvanising the party and boosting the confidence of its members. If the Pheu Thai was to pick up to three prime ministerial candidates, Ms Paethongtan was certain to be picked as first among them. "Thaksin would not let his daughter be relegated to a lesser position," he said.
On the question of whether Ms Paethongtan's presence in Pheu Thai would unnerve the MFP, the academic said this might not be the case. He explained the two parties have set out to achieve different goals; Pheu Thai dealing with the plight of the grassroots and MFP bent on social reform.
Those preferring the MFP might view Ms Paethongtan merely as torchbearer of the Shinawatras, who holds a major position in the Pheu Thai which comes across as family-run outfit rather than the people's party.
Landslide victory an uphill battle
Mr Yutthaporn said he did not think the Pheu Thai can claim a landslide victory in the next polls despite the election reverting to the two-ballot system where voters cast one ballot for the party of their choice and the other for a constituency candidate.
For Pheu Thai to have any chance of winning big, enough voters must vote for the party and its candidates in both ballots. There is no telling if this will be the trend in the next general election expected sometime next year.
Also, being an opposition party for many years has deprived Pheu Thai of substantive achievements to woo people. The party has had to dust off policies it introduced back in the days when it led the government.
"Clinching a landslide victory in an election is not as easy as Thaksin thinks. There's nothing to guarantee that Tony (Woodsome) can win the hearts and minds of the new generation and leave the MFP at a disadvantage," he said, referring to Thaksin's alias in his talk programmes via the Clubhouse audio-based social networking app.
Thaksin shot himself in the foot when he recently addressed controversial calls for amendments to Section 112 of the Criminal Code, more commonly known as the lese majeste law. The former premier insisted the law was never a problem and pinned the blame for increasing political unrest on the authorities who enforced the section.
Meanwhile, Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer with Rangsit University, said there is no escaping old allegations dogging Ms Paethongtan, which is the price she pays for getting into politics. "The Paethongtan debut is part of a two-pronged tactic.
First, it will gauge public reception of her as a politician and whether it can ignite strong public resistance to Thaksin returning home from exile.
"Two, Ms Paethongtan's place in Pheu Thai is a way of saying the Shinawatras have not turned their back on the party, which can also stop it bleeding members," Mr Wanwichit said. If Ms Paethongtan is indeed chosen as a prime minister candidate, where she is ranked among the party's other candidates will matter.
Don't jump the queue
Wanwichit: Warns of danger ahead
Mr Wanwichit said he believed Pheu Thai will select either a leading businessperson or a prominent technocrat as a prime ministerial candidate and put the person up high on the candidacy spot, either as the first or second-ranked candidate to attract voters, with Ms Paethongtan sitting in third place.
However, if the Pheu Thai manages to stage a landslide win, there might be a push in the party to have Ms Paethongtan "jump the queue" and take over the first-ranked slot so she could be prime minister. If that happened, Pheu Thai would find it hard to explain away the reason for the switch.
The academic warned of danger ahead for Ms Paethongtan. Public opposition against her could build if she was linked to a renewed campaign to secure an amnesty for Thaksin so he could return from exile without serving his prison term.
On Oct 21, 2008, the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions sentenced Thaksin to two years in jail, convicting him of violating the National Counter Corruption Act.
He was charged with abusing his authority when he gave consent to his then-wife Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra participating in the auction for 33 rai of land on Thiam Ruam Mit Road in the Ratchadaphisek area.
Ms Paethongtan has declined to say if she will take up the offer as the party's prime ministerial candidate. "It's a matter for the future," she told reporters at the party assembly.
New faces up the ante
The party has named 23 new executives consisting mostly of middle-aged and younger offspring of veteran politicians. Ms Paethongtan is among the new faces entrusted to steer the party and appeal to young voters.
A source in Pheu Thai said it and fellow opposition parties agreed there should be three prime ministerial candidates in case of a political "accident".
"Ms Paethongtan may have made a good first impression although the problem is: Can she keep it up?" the source added.
Thaksin's daughter is a breath of fresh air for the party which could win more MP seats with her as a magnet. But she needs to prove her worth while Pheu Thai will pledge to build on its past legacy of improving the bread and butter issues.
One of its direct competitors, the MFP, has no real achievements to its name, the source said. "A landslide election victory is possible provided we capture voters across all generations and do a marketing that covers all segments," it added.
The source said the Pheu Thai's pro-democracy voters who pondered switching sides to the MFP or the Thai Srang Thai Party might now decide to stay put with Ms Paethongtan projecting a clear picture of where Pheu Thai is heading.
Krissada Tantherdthit, a Pheu Thai MP for Nong Khai and member of the party's economic team, said young and first-time voters can make a difference at the next polls.
"The change in the executive board showcases the party's young and capable hands," he said.
"Khun Oong Ing [Ms Paethongtan's nickname] has inherited a lot in terms of political experience and managerial ability from her father."
Worachai Hema, a red shirt co-leader, said the role of Ms Paethongtan and Dr Cholnan will help transform Pheu Thai into a progressive party and more red-shirt progressive thinkers will stay loyal.
MFP secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon welcomed news Pheu Thai was reaching out to young people.