Chiang Mai a teaser for new big rivalry

Chiang Mai a teaser for new big rivalry

Thaksin Shinawatra visits the Waroros market in Muang district, Chiang Mai, on March 16. (Pool photo)
Thaksin Shinawatra visits the Waroros market in Muang district, Chiang Mai, on March 16. (Pool photo)

Rivalry between the ruling Pheu Thai Party and the main opposition Move Forward Party was thrust into the spotlight when their respective key figures visited Chiang Mai recently.

Observers say that fierce competition between the parties is also expected to extend to the elections of members and chief executives of provincial administrative organisations (PAO) early next year. The local polls will provide a gauge of their popularity ahead of the next general election.

Convicted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s trip to his home province of Chiang Mai from March 14-16 was seen as a bid to help Pheu Thai regain a political foothold after defeat to the MFP in the election last May.

Pheu Thai lost a lot of ground, including in Bangkok’s 32 constituencies and the northern province of Chiang Mai, previously considered the party’s “capital”.

With 10 constituency seats up for grabs in Chiang Mai in last year’s election, the MFP secured seven while Pheu Thai won only two. The other was secured by the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).

In the 2019 election, Chiang Mai had nine constituency seats, and Pheu Thai won them all.

Thaksin has long been seen as the de facto leader of Pheu Thai, which cobbled together a coalition government and is now led by his youngest daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra.

It was his first trip following his release from Police General Hospital on parole last month, and his first visit to his native province after going into self-imposed exile 17 years ago. He returned to the country last August.

His return also overlapped with Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s March 15-17 inspection of efforts to tackle haze pollution in the province, as well as the March 16-17 visit of Pita Limjaroenrat, chief adviser of the MFP.

Mr Pita denied his presence in Chiang Mai — at the same time Mr Srettha and Thaksin — was intended as a political stunt, adding his main focus was also to monitor the pollution situation.

Gauging popularity

The MFP’s deputy leader, Pol Maj Gen Supisarn Bhakdinarinath, told the Bangkok Post that he believed Thaksin’s trip to Chiang Mai was intended to restore his own popularity and help Pheu Thai resolidify its political foothold in the party’s stronghold, particularly ahead of the PAO elections.

The MFP recently unveiled Pun-Arj Chairatana, former executive director of the National Innovation Agency (NIA), as its candidate to run for PAO chief executive of Chiang Mai, Pol Maj Gen Supisarn said, adding that if elected, the candidate can help to bridge the gap between local and national politics for the party.

He also believed the PAO elections in Chiang Mai would be a useful barometer of the parties’ popularity ahead of the next election.

“The PAO elections are expected to be a battle between the MFP and Pheu Thai. Bur our initial estimates suggest the MFP retains more support.

“We captured seven constituency seats in Chiang Mai in the last election. As long as we can maintain our support base [in Chiang Mai], it will be hard for them to defeat us,” Pol Maj Gen Supisarn said, adding the MFP will try to encourage people who are not interested in local elections to turn up in large numbers to vote in the PAO elections.

“We will have to make them realise the importance of local elections and persuade as many of them as possible to vote.

“The MFP will file a capable candidate, and we are confident that we will win,” he said.

The four-year term of the current PAO members and chief executives nationwide will end on Dec 20. Elections of new members and chief executives must be held within 45 days or by Feb 3 next year.

Pichai Lertpongadisorn, representing Pheu Thai, won the previous election to become the PAO chief executive of Chiang Mai. 

Sources at Pheu Thai said the ruling party was considering candidates for the post.

Adisorn Piengkes, a Pheu Thai list MP, downplayed the rivalry between Pheu Thai and the MFP, saying residents in Chiang Mai can only benefit from the competition.

“The more people [from the two parties] visit, the better. The government and the opposition party can find time to look after the people. Chiang Mai is a large province with several districts.

“The opposition party [MFP] has seven MPs in Chiang Mai so it is their duty to visit and help people. We should look on the bright side. Don’t think of it as rivalry,” Mr Adisorn said.

Asked whether Pheu Thai can regain its popularity in Chiang Mai, he said: “There is a long way to go... Competition is normal in a democratic country.

“But we are also confident in winning in the PAO election in Chiang Mai. The MFP is now facing the prospects of disbandment,” Mr Adisorn said, referring to the party’s current legal battle over its stance on the lese majeste law, which could potentially lead to its dissolution.

Woravat Auapinyakul, a Pheu Thai MP for Phrae, said the MFP is now trying to stand in the way of Pheu Thai at every available opportunity.

“Both parties previously worked together to solve problems [when they were in the opposition bloc]. But now, the MFP’s way of thinking has changed. They try to oppose Pheu Thai at every turn,” Mr Woravat said.

He also said Pheu Thai still enjoys higher popularity in the north than the MFP. But Pheu Thai defeat in Chiang Mai in the last election was because voters were concerned that Pheu Thai would switch sides to form a coalition with political parties close to those involved in the previous coup.

Nuttakorn Vititanon, a lecturer in political science at Chiang Mai University, told the Bangkok Post that the trip to Chiang Mai by Mr Pita was intended to grab media attention from Thaksin and Mr Srettha. 

“Chiang Mai is no longer Pheu Thai’s as it was in the past. The MFP now has seven MPs there while Pheu Thai has only two,” he said.

Mr Nuttakorn said he believed Thaksin still wields immense political clout in Chiang Mai as he received a warm welcome from several important figures during his trip there. However, he said the recent publicity stunts in Chiang Mai by Pheu Thai and the MFP had little bearing on the outcome of the next election.

Switching allegiance

Voters in Chiang Mai favoured the MFP in the last election because they were upset with Pheu Thai forming a coalition with the PPRP and the United Thai Nation Party, he said.

Phichai Ratnatilaka Na Bhuket, a politics and development expert at the National Institute of Development Administration, told the Bangkok Post that Thaksin’s trip to Chiang Mai could only bring joy to his staunch supporters.

“But it won’t change the minds of people who have switched allegiance from Pheu Thai to the MFP as they believe it has become aligned with its former foes [in forming the coalition government]. 

“A one-off publicity stunt was not enough. Greater efforts will be required to win them back,” Mr Phichai said.

“Moreover, Thaksin now appears to have eclipsed Mr Srettha’s leadership and underscores the so-called double prime minister situation,” Mr Phichai said.

Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political science lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, told the Bangkok Post that it is important for Pheu Thai to win back Chiang Mai, although the MFP will try to retain its new-found popularity there as shown by Mr Pita’s trip to the northern province.

However, Mr Yutthaporn echoed the view that the recent trips by these political key figures will not have any immediate impact on national politics.

That said, the forthcoming ferocious battle between the parties will be an early guide on what to expect in national politics as a whole in the following months and years, he said. 

Akom Suwanganta, vice-president of the Chiang Mai Chamber of Commerce, agreed that Thaksin’s visit to Chiang Mai may have provided material for the media to write about, but it would not lead to any major change in politics.

“I don’t think the trips by Thaksin and the prime minister will help Pheu Thai reclaim victory in the next election.

“Moreover, the ruling party has not shown any outstanding performance in turning the country around,” he said.

Pita Limjaroenrat on March 16 listens to volunteer forest firefighters from the Mirror Foundation at a forest in Chiang Mai. (Photo: Move Forward Party)

Do you like the content of this article?