THE UPSET election victory of Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad at the age of 92 has heartened fans of Thai veteran politicians, particularly those of former prime minister Chuan Leekpai.
Chuan, the Democrat Party’s chief adviser who turns 80 in July, was pitted early this year against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as a key competitor for the premiership after the next election.
Observers at that time argued that only a post-election alliance between the country’s two largest political parties – Pheu Thai and Democrat – would be able to thwart the ruling junta’s return to power through General Prayut’s comeback as head of government.
Chuan, a former leader of the Democrat Party, was viewed as a “compromise” choice. Pheu Thai and their “red shirt” supporters certainly would not allow current Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to lead their coalition government, given their past bitter mutual hostility.
Now, after Mahathir’s success, talk of pushing Chuan as a PM candidate has been revived. Political analysts view him as a strong contender for the premiership, as it is highly likely he will be one of the three PM candidates from the Democrat Party. The new Constitution that came into effect in April last year, requires that political parties nominate no more than three prime ministerial candidates before contesting an election.
Democrat leader Abhisit said he believed Chuan, who is viewed as his political mentor, commanded considerable support from voters, as many people had both respect and faith in him.
“Chuan is a model good politician in the democratic system,” Abhisit said. However, the Democrat leader said it remained unclear who would be the party’s three PM nominations. That would be decided by its new executive board, who would be elected by Democrat members after the junta ban on political activities was lifted, he added.
Former Democrat deputy leader Alongkorn Ponlaboot voiced support for Chuan contesting the prime minister’s seat.
“After Mahathir’s return as prime minister at 92, many people are thinking of Chuan as an alternative. He is a symbol of honesty. If the Democrat Party reforms itself and has a new vision, it may recreate a ‘Mahathir phenomenon’ here,” said Alongkorn, who served as deputy president of the post-coup National Reform Steering Assembly.
Observers believe that Prayut will seek a return to power.
One thing is for sure: A new political party linked to the ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), will be set up to complete the mission to return Prayut to Government House.
Whatever its official name, the “NCPO party” will become another major player after the election, in addition to the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties. And there is a high likelihood that none of the three alone will win an absolute majority in the House of Representatives.
Two of them would need to join forces in order to gain a House majority. An alliance between Pheu Thai and the NCPO party is likely impossible. The Democrats are more likely to get the upper hand among the three; they can choose whether to join the Pheu Thai or the pro-junta party.
The Democrats last won a general election in 1992 under Chuan’s leadership. He became prime minister for the first time after the national vote, which was held following the collapse of a pro-military government that cracked down on pro-democracy protests against a non-elected prime minister. “The Democrat Party certainly will become part of the post-election government. But whether we will get the PM seat depends on the numbers after the election,” said a source in the country’s oldest party.
The Democrats will certainly bargain for the PM’s seat if they are approached to join a post-election coalition government, if the other key partner wins just slightly more House seats than the Democrats do, according to the source.
Chuan has a better chance than anyone else in his party to win acceptance from the other potential coalition partner, whether it is Pheu Thai or the NCPO party. So, the veteran is going to be a key challenger to Prayut for the premiership.