Is sticking with them the right strategy?
Even if former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is found guilty by the Supreme Court this week over her government’s rice-pledging scandal, it is unlikely to cast any shadow over her relationship with the Pheu Thai Party. The bond between her clan and the biggest political party has apparently become unbreakable and, to the party, it does not matter whether the linkage is an asset or a liability.
A few days ago, the party’s acting secretary-general emerged to seek evidence regarding her “escape from justice”. The move by Phumtham Wechayachai underlines what everyone expects – that the party is not just keeping links with her, but will also use her to advertise itself. From the way things are, the party will not distance itself from the Shinawatras, but will rather seek to win the next election based on its connection with the clan.
It has been the same with her brother, Thaksin. Pheu Thai and the Shinawatras cannot exist without each other. The relationship is different from the one between the Democrat Party and its leadership. The rival party, which was unable to match Pheu Thai’s rural popularity in previous elections, has made more natural transitions when it comes to passing the torch. In other words, the Democrat Party can easily move on if Abhisit Vejjajiva leaves the helm, but Pheu Thai’s future will be absolutely volatile without Thaksin’s family.
Some say the time is ripe for Pheu Thai to come out of the Shinawatras’ shadow. Others say the party is not ready for a normal transition. The camp has had several leaders since Thaksin was overthrown in a 2006 coup, but everyone of them, including Yingluck, was his thinly-veiled nominee.
Pheu Thai’s link with the Shinawatras has its pros and cons. It won the party elections, obviously, but it has also beset the political camp with problems serious enough to destabilise its governments. The latest turmoil the party faced resulted directly from a legislative policy its opponents insisted was designed to help Thaksin.
Before that, Pheu Thai had been strongly convinced that it would comfortably hold on to power in the years that followed. Everything was going its way, namely the return from five-year political bans of more than 100 politicians who were practically its allies, the passage of key financial bills, and the internal problems of the Democrat Party itself. Then the “amnesty bill” changed everything, as the aggressive push for its passage refuelled anti-Shinawatra sentiment, triggered massive street protests and led to the 2014 coup that toppled Yingluck.
Phumtham and other Pheu Thai strategists are certainly aware of the risks associated with the party’s linkage with the Shinawatras. But they must have either concluded that it is too soon to cut loose from the clan, or, more likely, decided that they will stick with the family forever.
Pheu Thai always considers the middle-class uprising against it a pro-Democrat conspiracy. That may be a mistake as big as the Democrats’ assumption that Pheu Thai only bought its way to power. The wrong assumption keeps Pheu Thai from the middle class, meaning it always has to rely on the Shinawatras come what may.
Pheu Thai is going into the next election with two choices. It can keep the strong bond with the Shinawatras, hoping that it brings a victory that can give the party boasting rights, or it can start accepting that, in the Thai context, election victories alone are not the answer to all questions including its own.