Shinawatra legacy hanging over Pheu Thai party’s leadership choice

politics August 24, 2017 01:00

The Nation

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WHATEVER THE VERDICT in the case against former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the Pheu Thai Party will need to find a new leader and PM candidate to contest the next election which is expected to be held next year.

Yingluck cannot do the job even if she is acquitted in the negligence case stemming from her government’s corruption-plagued rice-pledging scheme. The post-coup National Legislative Assembly in 2015 impeached her for causing a massive loss in implementing the policy, effectively banning her from politics for five years.

Pheu Thai’s general secretary Phumtham Wechayachai said the party had not discussed new leadership as it first had to assess the political situation and public demand. When the junta’s ban on political activities is lifted, Pheu Thai would focus on setting proper policies and party structure before finding a new leader who would fit those requirements, he added.

Phumtham did not confirm or rule out speculation that the party’s next leader would not come from the Shinawatra family.

“Our party has many capable people with experience in running the country who are qualified in many areas. It is too early to say who the party will choose to become its leader. We still have enough time, so we do not have to make hasty decisions, as the political situation is changing all the time,” he said in a Facebook message posted on August 14.

Without Yingluck, Pheu Thai now has two strong contenders to become the next leader – former prime minister Somchai Wongsawat and veteran politician Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan – who both have strengths and weaknesses.

Whoever the new Pheu Thai leader will be, the most important quality they need to have is the blessing from the Shinawatra clan’s patriarch and matriarch – former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his former wife Khunying Pojaman Na Pombejra. Viewed as the “real owners” of Pheu Thai, both have retained much influence in the party despite not holding official posts in its executive board.

Somchai was recently acquitted by the Supreme Court in the case stemming from the fatal 2008 crackdown on yellow-shirt protesters under his short-lived government’s tenure. 

Sudarat, formerly a public health minister, won the green light from Thaksin and Pojaman. And thanks to their blessing, undercurrents against her within the party subsided. However, with his acquittal, Somchai has become another strong contender.

A Pheu Thai source said Sudarat was not the favourite among many of her party colleagues.

“Not everyone in the party wants Sudarat to become the party leader. They have to stay silent because the party owners back this person. Now that Somchai has been cleared, he is capable of being another choice to become the party leader,” the source said.

Somchai is married to Thaksin’s younger sister Yaowapha and is considered part of the Shinawatra clan. That is why he was strongly opposed by the yellow shirts when he became prime minister in 2008 and headed a coalition led by the People Power Party, which was considered a Thaksin proxy.

Sudarat is not a member of the clan but she has won the blessing of “big boss” Thaksin due to her proven loyalty, good image, strong political background, and large support base in Bangkok.

Somchai’s status as a key Shinawatra clan member has won him more respect from other Pheu Thai colleagues compared to Sudarat. But this “quality” is more likely to attract strong opposition from people who are against the so-called Thaksin regime and view Somchai as just a Thaksin proxy.

While leading his short-lived administration from September to December 2008, Somchai could not enter Government House, which had been seized by yellow-shirt protesters.

The Shinawatras, who have influence over Pheu Thai, will need to consider carefully whether to choose Thaksin’s brother-in-law or an outsider to become the next party leader.

By favouring Somchai, they may revive a bitter confrontation with opponents of the “Thaksin regime”. If national reconciliation is taken into consideration, Sudarat seems to be a better choice. She has an advantage over Somchai in that she is not part of the Shinawatra clan and has no history of involvement in any political violence.

Sudarat may appear to be a good choice for national unity. But her rise to become Pheu Thai’s next leader may put its unity at risk as she fails to command respect from many party colleagues, particularly those from the provinces who view her as being aloof.