Sudarat Keyuraphan (pictured in the first row, 8th from the right), a key Phuea Thai party member with strong base support, has reportedly been sidelined, further destabilizing the unity of the party. (Photo: Prachatai, Flickr)

The Phuea Thai Party: The Ignominy of Irrelevance

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The Phuea Thai Party, the country’s largest opposition party, is becoming increasingly irrelevant. To compound matters, the Thai prime minister is enjoying a surge of support, thanks to the country’s relatively successful battle against the coronavirus.

The disarray in the Phuea Thai Party plumbed to new depths last week when it failed to field a candidate to defend its parliamentary seat in a by-election in Lampang Province. The failure will call attention to the perceived incompetence of party leader Sompong Amornvivat, whose weak leadership has long been a source of frustration in Thailand’s largest political party.

Phuea Thai leads the opposition in the Thai parliament, having bagged 136 seats in the 500-seat parliament in the 2019 general elections. It is the latest reincarnation of a series of political parties backed or linked to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. But in the ensuing months, several disgruntled party veterans are talking about breaking away and forming new parties. 

The party has only itself to blame for failing to contest the Lampang by-election  scheduled for 20 June. The seat became vacant after the death of Phuea Thai member of parliament Itthirat Chansurin. At first, the party planned to field Itthirat’s father, Pinit, in the race to replace him. But on the eve of the deadline for the registration of candidacies on 26 May, Pinit abruptly pulled out of the race. His about-face opens the way for Phalang Pracharat Party candidate Wattana Sithiwang to coast to an easy win. Wattana polled second to Itthirat in the general election last year.

Phuea Thai’s stumble could not have come at a worse time.  The new parliamentary session started on 27 May. The Prayut administration is seeking parliamentary endorsement for three emergency decrees authorising Thailand to raise 1,900 billion baht to fund programmes to cope with social and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Without a more organised opposition to effect traditional checks and balances on the government, corruption in this massive spending spree looks inevitable.

Party Leader by Accident

Sompong’s woes are not totally self-inflicted. He became Phuea Thai’s leader by happenstance.  The party had won so many constituency seats in the March 2019 general election that it received no party-list seats in the post-election allocation.  Consequently, all of Phuea Thai’s top leaders, whom it had placed on its party list, found themselves without seats in the House of Representatives. The party needed someone in the House to formally serve as the Leader of the Opposition. Sompong, a member of parliament from Chiang Mai’s Constituency No. 5, was chosen because of strong backing of Yaowapa Wongsawat, a sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

One of Sompong’s rivals in the party is Sudarat Keyuraphan. She was Phuea Thai’s preferred candidate for the premiership and ran as a party-list candidate. Sudarat has strong backing from Thaksin, but she is known to be at odds with Thaksin’s sister Yaowapa.

Sudarat also does not see eye to eye with another senior Phuea Thai veteran, Chalerm Yoobamrung. As both Sudarat and Chalerm have solid political constituencies in Bangkok, they are competing to carry the Phuea Thai flag in the Thai capital.

In February, Sudarat, who is chief party strategist, was sidelined by Chalerm during the run-up to the no-confidence debate against Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha and five of his ministers. Chalerm, instead of Sudarat, led Phuea Thai’s preparation for the debate, amid rumours that the retired police officer had concocted a secret deal not to go after Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan.  Prawit is the government’s influential “political manager”, holding together the Phalang Pracharat Party and the unwieldy coalition of 18 parties in the ruling coalition.

This development reinforces recent rumours that Thaksin, who has been in exile in Dubai, has finally given up on a political comeback in Thailand. Whether this is just a rumour or a sign that Thaksin has admitted defeat remains to be seen.

Another Phuea Thai faction consists of ex-party leader Phumtham Wechayachai, Dr Prommin Lerdsuriyadej and Dr Surapong Suebwonglee. This group is in close contact with Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former Phuea Thai leader who left the party to join the ill-fated Thai Raksa Chat Party before the general election last year. Thai Raksa Chat was dissolved for allegedly breaking the election law in nominating King Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister Princess Ubolratana as its candidate for the premiership.    

In move that will complicate the state of affairs in the opposition even further, Chaturon has announced on Facebook his intention to launch a truly independent new party, which will be neither an offshoot of Phuea Thai nor a reincarnation of Thai Raksa Chat. He has emphasised that he wants the new party to offer Thai people new hope, rather than trying to salvage the hopeless (and hapless) Phuea Thai. To put it simply: the party that Chaturon envisions will not have Thaksin pulling the strings behind the scenes. 

This development reinforces recent rumours that Thaksin, who has been in exile in Dubai, has finally given up on a political comeback in Thailand. Whether this is just a rumour or a sign that Thaksin has admitted defeat remains to be seen.

What is certain now is that Thailand’s success in coping with Covid-19 has boosted the popularity of Prayut. This in turn makes it imperative for those in the opposition to reinvent themselves, lest they be swept away by the wave of support of Prayut and become irrelevant – as Phuea Thai is now.

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