Interior Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan seems the perfect choice for the post of Pheu Thai Party leader. While not a Shinawatra family insider, he has worked for the party for some time, is trusted by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and is also a prominent member of the red shirts.
“The key qualification for being Pheu Thai Party leader is not the ability to turn left or turn right [as ordered], but the ability to turn 360 degrees to hear the voices of all groups, to see the big picture and be as transparent as a goldfish in a glass aquarium,” he said.
Backed by Khunying Pojaman na Pombejra, Thaksin’s ex-wife, Charupong has gradually gained prominence in the party, and is now in the top position.
Charupong entered the political arena in the era of the People Power Party, the reincarnation of the dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party. He moved to Pheu Thai after the People Power Party was also dissolved.
Last May, he was voted the party’s secretary-general. When Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was forming her government, Charupong played the role of “government manager”, negotiating with the coalition parties.
In the first Cabinet reshuffle in January, he was rewarded with his first Cabinet post, as transport minister. Now he has been given the Interior portfolio, a position with no less prominence.
Charupong is really a connector; he is linked to both the Pheu Thai Party and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the main red-shirt group. He is one of the group’s main speakers and also writes articles for the red shirts’ magazine.
Charupong was voted in as new Pheu Thai leader a few days after being made interior minister. It seems he’s following in the footsteps of Yongyuth Wichaidit, who also held both these positions, but Charupong tries to play this down.
“I haven’t been appointed a deputy prime minister yet,” he said with a smile, stressing that his two posts did not come in a package.
Charupong said he deserved the Interior Minister’s post as he started on his career path at the ministry.
Now that he is minister, he plans to get MPs to work closely with governors, sharing problems raised by the public and working on them in the legislative and administrative branches.
He does not fear criticism that this approach is a way of using his position to build a political voter base. “The decision belongs to voters, and judgement day is election day. Doing this means we are working. If we don’t do anything, people won’t vote for us,” he said.
Charupong said he was confident Pheu Thai Party was heading in the right path with its populist policies. In particular, he said the rice scheme would lift farmers’ standard of living. Their incomes would increase so they can join the middle class, he said.
Despite the reduction of tax rates, the expansion of the middle class means more income for the government, as the number of taxpayers will increase, Charupong said.
He said the government would never abandon the rice scheme.
Looking serious and with a note of anger entering his voice, Charupong claimed that opponents of the rice-pledging scheme were people who had taken advantage of farmers for too long, and those who feared Pheu Thai would be in government for many years to come.
“If this [rice-pledging policy] succeeds, the success will be greater than the Bt30 universal healthcare scheme. We [Pheu Thai] will lead the government for a long time and the opposition will be the opposition forever,” he said.
Known as an orator, Charupong showed many moods in less than an hour. Before the interview started, he was talkative, talking playfully and laughing a lot. He said that was his real nature. Nevertheless, before the camera, Charupong lowered his volume and changed the tone of his speech. When asked if a quality for the top Pheu Thai post was being able to take orders from former PM, Charupong said Thaksin was a great contributor to his party, and someone worth listening to.
“Is Thaksin a disgusting person that I should not listen to? I take phone calls myself. I answer journalists’ phone calls. I listen to all people. Why can’t I listen to Thaksin?” he said, before acknowledging he would try to secure Thaksin’s return to the country within this government’s term.