February 19, 2013 00:00 By Avudh Panananda
The March 3 vote will be a litmus test on whether fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra will come home or end up in permanent exile.
Bangkok voters are going to cast their ballots to elect their next governor and their voice will, in turn, send a subtle message on Thaksin’s fate.
At Thaksin’s intervention, the Pheu Thai bigwigs put their differences aside to rally behind their gubernatorial candidate, Pongsapat Pongcharoen.
In a month of campaigning, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been very active in swaying votes for Pongsapat as if she were waging a proxy war to fly the Pheu Thai flag in the capital.
She knows her brother Thaksin has a personal stake in the race.
Opposition Leader Abhisit Vejjajiva is campaigning hard for the re-election of his fellow Democrat MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, even though the two rarely speak to each other.
As we enter the final two weeks of the race, the Democrats have been mobilising all resources to convince voters that a Pongsapat victory would be tantamount to condoning Thaksin and the political violence that engulfed the capital in 2010.
In other words, the Democrats’ campaign strategy, led by Abhisit and Sukhumbhand, has been designed to achieve victory by playing up the sentiment against Thaksin.
Should Sukhumbhand claim victory, the underlying meaning will be that Bangkok residents still hold Thaksin in contempt.
Under this scenario, the central government will face an uphill battle fought under the pretext of amnesty and reconciliation to bring Thaksin home.
Thaksin, Yingluck and their three strategists, Somchai Wongsawat, Phumtham Wechayachai and Suranand Vejjajiva, are fully aware how important the voice of the urban middle class is.
Nationally, Pheu Thai can grab power with or without the Bangkok voters. But it can cling to power only if it remains in good graces with the urban residents.
Yingluck is putting her utmost efforts into securing Pongsapat’s victory because she knows the sentiment in the capital is key to the fate of her brother.
Regardless of his victory or defeat, Pongsapat is the proxy used by Thaksin and Yingluck to chart the next move.
Should Pongsapat win, Pheu Thai will heave a sign of relief that Thaksin could and would definitely come home without having to serve his two years in jail. By the same token, the red shirts would enjoy full and unconditional amnesty.
A Democrat defeat would mean the loss of momentum to organise anti-government, anti-Thaksin protests.
Somchai, Phumtham and Suranand have already mapped out plans hinged on varying scenarios.
A clear win for Pongsapat would mean the green light for Pheu Thai to fulfil its agendas for reconciliation, amnesty and rewriting the Constitution.
Somchai is the designated man to push for the new charter once his five-year political ban ends in December.
Chart Thai Pattana Party chief adviser Banharn Silapa-archa will see the end of his ban that same month. And he is poised to lead the reconciliation crusade facilitating Thaksin’s homecoming.
In the case of a narrow win or loss for Pongsapat, Pheu Thai would still push for its three agendas, but at a cautious pace.
Under no circumstances will the ruling party put Yingluck’s leadership at risk. Each move would be undertaken only after there were no threat of street protests spiralling out of control.
Should Pongsapat suffer a big defeat, Thaksin and Yingluck would have to come up with a new way to appease the urban middle class.
A misjudgement of the sentiment in the capital could spell permanent exile for Thaksin.