The Pheu Thai Party, led by Sompong Amornvivat, has provided effective opposition in parliament and endeavoured to keep the government accountable. However, it has long been accepted that the party retains close ties with the Shinawatra family. This will now come under the microscope of an Election Commission that has shown, in the past, with the now-dissolved Future Forward Party, that it has formidable powers.
The law governing political parties will be thoroughly reviewed against a complaint submitted by a well known constitutional activist on Wednesday to Thailand’s powerful Election Commission against the Pheu Thai Party to determine if the matter should proceed further. Election Commissioner Tawatchai Therdphaothai warned that it would be wrong to jump to premature conclusions after acknowledging receipt of the complaint against Thailand’s biggest political party and the main opposition group in parliament.
Thailand’s powerful political oversight body, the Election Commission, began reviewing a petition on Wednesday which seeks to have the country’s biggest political party and mainstay of the parliamentary opposition dissolved because of alleged indirect control exercised over it by non-members in contravention of the law governing Thai political parties.
The suit, filed by a respected constitutional activist, Srisuwan Janya, highlights the influence wielded over the party by former Premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, now living in exile in Dubai.
Thaksin’s influence questioned over support for Pheu Thai local election candidate in Chiang Mai this week
In particular, Mr Srisuwan, who is the Secretary-General of the Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution, highlights the support in recent days, given by Mr Thaksin for a candidate running in the local election poll scheduled for December 20th.
Pichai Lertpongadisorn is the party’s candidate for the Chairmanship of the Provincial Administration Organisation in the northern city of Thailand which is a Pheu Thai stronghold and a former seat of power of Thailand’s ex-Premier who was ousted by a military coup on the 16th September 2006.
The former prime minister’s influence over the party has never been denied but party leaders have always described him as a respected friend of the movement.
In recent years, senior members of Pheu Thai have met Mr Thaksin in offshore venues such as Hong Kong or Dubai.
Thaksin has often described himself as ‘retired’ but maintains a profile and online social media presence in the country where he is still very popular
Thaksin has, in recent years, described himself as retired from politics particularly on occasions such as his birthday but it is an expression that he has used often since his ouster in 2006.
The flamboyant national leader, undoubtedly, still retains a high level of core support in the north of Thailand where many homes have a portrait of the former premier as well as the King such is the enduring legacy of his period in power as prime minister from February 2001 to September 2006.
Before that, Thaksin was a deputy prime minister from July 1995 to November 1997.
Many Thais still celebrate his birthday every year and that of his equally popular sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was removed by the Constitutional Court in 2014, weeks before another military coup that removed the then Pheu Thai government from power.
The ex-premier is a polarising influence who can drum up support for candidates in the north and northeast of Thailand while also bolstering support among candidates and parties on the opposite side of the political divide in Bangkok and the South who vehemently oppose him and all that he stands for.
Influence of the Shinawatra family over Pheu Thai on show in September when Thaksin’s ex-wife reportedly helped resolve internal party conflict
The influence of the Shinawatra family, while not official, could be seen, as late as this September, when Thaksin’s ex-wife, Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra, was seen to be involved in an internal party conflict which ultimately led to both the current leader and MP, Sompong Amornvivat and Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, the party’s public flag bearer in the 2019 election, standing down.
Mr Sompong was subsequently re-elected to his position while Khunying Sudarat has now resigned from the party where she had been Chief Strategist.
These events in September coincided with an audience given to Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra by the King and Queen at the Dusit Palace in Bangkok linked with Khunying Potjaman’s charity work at a time of mounting street protests, which sparked wild rumours of a potential return by Thaksin.
Video released by Thaksin on Tuesday
On Tuesday, Thaksin released a video titled ‘Missing Chiang Mai Very Much’ in which he endorsed Pheu Thai candidate Pichai Lertpongadisorn in the Chiang Mai local election poll on Sunday.
He remarked that the candidate had taken the time to visit him in Dubai.
At present, the Pheu Thai leadership is dismissing the threat against the party but this thinking may prove to be defective.
Pheu Thai leadership defends Thaksin’s intervention in the local election contest in Chiang Mai this week
Sompong Amornvivat insisted on Tuesday that the party was ready to be investigated.
He rejected claims that communications from Mr Thaksin in support of a particular candidate in a Thai election had any bearing on the matter.
‘It’s a private matter. It’s like encouraging a friend to vote for a certain candidate. It’s permissible under the law and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that,’ he said.
‘Merely expressed his personal opinions’
This was the same line taken by Deputy Leader, Chusak Sirinil, who denied that the main opposition party was influenced by Mr Thaksin who has not been seen in Thailand since skipping bail in 2008 after he attended the Beijing Olympics.
‘The constitution also permits those who have voting rights to help election candidates campaign. Also, Thaksin did not mention Pheu Thai. In his letter, he merely expressed his personal opinions and did not force the party to help with the campaigns,’ Mr Chusak observed.
Different emphasis between Pheu Thai leader and Election Commissioner on the question of influencing others to vote a certain way in elections
On Wednesday, Commissioner Tawatchai Therdphaothai told the press that a fact-finding team would be set up to review the complaint submitted by Mr Srisuwan.
He said that, first of all, they would look at the law governing political parties very carefully.
He mentioned that similar complaints had fallen in the past when they were interpreted as being within the remit of what the law allows.
However, he appeared to differ with the assertion by senior Pheu Thai officials that any citizen can encourage another to vote for a particular candidate or in a certain fashion.
‘It’s a matter of personal preference. Who you like and vote for should be kept to yourself. You shouldn’t tell anyone about your choices,’ Mr Tawatcahi said.
Commissioner asks for time to examine the law before deciding on whether to prosecute the case
Mr Tawatchai, however, insisted that it was not time to reach premature conclusions.
He said that, at the outset, the matter would be considered against the law before deciding whether to proceed with an investigation or not.
Only after an investigation into the matter, if that was deemed appropriate, would a decision be made on how to proceed.
The Election Commission has the power to refer the case to the Constitutional Court if it determines that there is a case to answer. Thereafter it would be up to the court to decide on whether to take on the case and if so to later render its judgment.
The court has the power to dissolve Thailand’s largest political party if it finds that former premier Thaksin Shinawatra or members of his family have sway or control over it while not being registered, officially, as members.
Main opposition party with 134 seats in parliament
Pheu Thai currently holds 134 seats in the 500 seat House of Representatives where its leader Mr Sompong is also the leader of the opposition working closely with the more progressive Move Forward Party with 53 seats and an assortment of smaller groupings.
The main government party, Palang Pracharat, has 121 seats and is led by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. The party forms part of a large coalition of parties supporting the government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha.
The Pheu Thai Party has provided dogged and sometimes aggressive opposition to the government in parliament and has pursued efforts to make General Prayut’s government accountable.
While supporting constitutional reform, Pheu Thai has struck a more cautious and pragmatic approach to that of the more progressive voices in Thailand represented in parliament by the Move Forward Party.
Fears that Pheu Thau could follow Future Forward into history if the matter is progressed to court
A similar move against the former Future Forward Party began last year over loans to the party made by its founder and leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
Initially, that party’s now-defunct leadership dismissed the complaint against it and confidently predicted that the Constitutional Court would not disband the party until it was dissolved on February 21st last.
The fear for Pheu Thai is that it has long been accepted, among the public, that the Shinawatra family and Mr Thaksin do have influence over its affairs.
This has been explained by party leaders as simply acknowledging the high esteem in which Mr Thaksin is held by members of Pheu Thai on a personal basis alongside millions of other Thai citizens.
However, the legal scope may be wide enough to infer otherwise and Thailand’s Election Commission has so far proven itself to be unafraid to pursue its remit, clearly set down under the law.