We have seen two acts of political insanity over the past few days. The question is which one of them – Suthep Thaugsuban publicly announcing he was going back on his words, or Thaksin Shinawatra reminding everyone that he remains the de facto supreme leader of the Pheu Thai Party – is the smarter of the two.
Both moves are extremely risky, meaning either or both could backfire very easily. The fact that Suthep has attracted a torrent of abuse whereas Pheu Thai seems unaffected, does not necessarily mean the former move is dumber.
For starters, Suthep has got the hard part over with, having faced the thunderous boos and chants of “Liar! Liar!”. It can’t get much worse. The party he is supposed to lead is a new one, hence it has no stake whatsoever in terms of parliamentary seats. It is starting with zero, so any number of seats – be it 10 or 50 – is a bonus.
Thaksin, on the other hand, has reportedly conducted at least one meeting with Pheu Thai politicians and has seen his picture plastered on newspaper front pages and website homepages, all without much of a fuss.
While Suthep has endured an uproar of contempt, Thaksin has enjoyed a relative calm. But it could be the calm before the storm, since he may have unwittingly put Pheu Thai in political and even legal jeopardy.
Unlike Suthep’s party, Pheu Thai has everything to lose. It controlled a large number of parliamentary seats before the 2014 coup. The party could have repeated that feat without Thaksin’s name even being mentioned.
In other words, while Suthep made his move out of necessity, since the new party needed his name to market itself, Thaksin was taking unnecessary risks.
Thaksin’s name can be a blessing or it can be a curse. That was evident during the last Bangkok gubernatorial election a few years ago. An incumbent Democrat governor had a low rating and a Pheu Thai candidate was all poised to oust him in that poll. Until two days before the election, that is, when the Democrat Party smartly used Thaksin’s name to scare Bangkok voters and push them to re-elect the much-maligned incumbent in a landslide.
Some may argue that since opponents can “demonise” Thaksin any time, as his control of Pheu Thai is no secret, whatever he does as far as the party is concerned should be irrelevant. This argument, however, fails to take into account one big, new factor.
In the past, Thaksin could name a party leader, call a press conference in Dubai saying he had Pheu Thai wrapped around his finger, and nobody could do anything legally about it. Not any more. The new Constitution is clear in its ban on “outsiders” having control over a political party. A violation could lead to dissolution of a party.
The constitutional rule was of course written with Thaksin in mind. But debate on a “conspiracy” against him, or on the nobility or baseness of the man is getting nowhere, so it’s better to focus this analysis on legal points only. Legally speaking, it’s extremely unwise for both Pheu Thai and Thaksin to boast of connections that can be interpreted as him being in control.
This new constitutional rule must have been the reason why Suthep had to make his role clear regarding the new party. Being a member of this new party takes away the legal risks, as he can influence it in any way he wants. Promoting his connection with the party is the risk he has to take, and it is worth taking.
When Suthep led massive street protests against the Yingluck government a few years ago, he solemnly announced that he would never accept any political position that would later come his way as a result of the campaign. That was generally taken as a pledge to disavow politics – although, to be fair, he did not exactly say so.
Another political storm will batter Suthep if he decides to take up a party or Cabinet position. But, so far, the new party is legally safe regarding its connections with him. Pheu Thai is on much shakier ground when it comes to its relations with Thaksin.
While the new party needs to tout Suthep’s name openly, Pheu Thai can sell its “pro-election” campaign and “ghost” connections with Thaksin without even having to whisper his name to voters. Politically speaking, while some of Suthep’s followers during the pre-coup mass protests might be turned off by his “broken promise”, they are never going to vote for Pheu Thai. Similarly, even if Thaksin disappeared from the face of the earth, Pheu Thai supporters would never switch camp.
This leaves us with the legal aspect. In Thai politics, after all, the line where “bold” becomes “dumb” almost always has to do with legality.