Rally last Sunday saw chief whip and Maha Sarakham MP Sutin Klangsaeng lament that the Thai economy had gone from an Asian Tiger under Thaksin to the ‘first dog in Asia’ under the current government. The theme of the meeting, which introduced Ms Paetongtarn Shinawatra, was one of economic revival for a younger generation and a return of the spirit of the Thai Rak Thai Party under Ms Paetongtarn’s father, Thaksin Shinawatra.
It is looking increasingly likely that another Shinawatra family member will lead the political movement established in 1998 by exiled Premier Thaksin Shinawatra in the forthcoming General Election which could be called as early as May this year but which must take place, in any event, within 12 months. On Sunday, 35-year-old Paetongtarn Shinawatra called for people to sign up to join the Pheu Thai Party free of charge and to encourage each other to do so in order to expand the membership of Thailand’s leading political grouping from 8 million to 14 million. The youngest daughter of Mr Thaksin, who was deposed from the office of Prime Minister in a 2006 coup and niece of Yingluck Shinawatra whose government was deposed in a 2014 putsch, described Thailand as currently still being in the grip of dictatorship which she defined as the inability of people to completely and freely elect their own government to act decisively on their behalf as was the case previously.
The youngest daughter of exiled Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was prime minister from February 2001 to September 2006, looks set to take on the mantle of prime ministerial candidate for the Pheu Thai Party, the country’s largest, in the next election following an exhilarating appearance before a supporter’s rally on Sunday in Udon Thani in which she heralded a drive to recruit more members to the kingdom’s largest political movement, raising its support base from 8 million members to 14 million before the next election.
The party meeting took place at the International Convention and Exhibition Centre within the Montathip Hall in Udon Thani Province and saw 35-year-old Paetongtarn Shinawatra joined by the party’s biggest names and top leadership on the stage.
These included the recently installed Pheu Thai Party leader Cholnan Srikaew and secretary Prasert Chanthararuangthong.
Consistent reference to the ‘DNA’ or genetic makeup of the Pheu Thai Party and a unity of purpose with Thai people as well as nostalgia for the Thaksin era
In uplifting speeches appealing to the party’s base, there was a consistent reference to the ‘DNA’ and bloodline of the political party with many speakers recalling the heady days of the Thai Rak Thai Party and its political success after it was formed by Mr Thaksin in 1998 and it’s period in power from 2001 to 2006 before Mr Thaksin was ousted in the 2006 military coup, during which the party introduced many signature and outstanding populist policies such as the ฿30 health care scheme for the poor which saw Mr Thaksin’s popularity soar, giving birth to a new source of political power in the Kingdom which remains in place to this day.
Ms Paetongtarn also known as ‘Ung Ing’, on Sunday, consistently sidestepped questions on whether she would be the party’s candidate for prime minister in the next election by suggesting that it was a matter for other members of the party and one that should only be addressed after the dissolution of the House of Representatives.
New General Election may be called by the end of May
This was lately given a new sense of urgency with reports that it may happen in May and speculation that mid-sized parties and perhaps the ruling Palang Pracharat Party will attempt to cut short the life of the current parliament to defeat new organic voting laws which would provide the Pheu Thai Party, with its strong grassroots support in constituencies nationwide, a major advantage in any General Election.
Any election outcome would still leave General Prayut Chan ocha with the advantage of the full support of Thailand’s upper house or Senate of 250 appointed members who will have a say in the next election for the last time under Section 272, an amendment to the 2017 constitution.
This provides for the Senate to have a vote on the appointment of a prime minister for five years after the first Thai parliament was inaugurated by the King on the 25th of May 2019.
2017 Constitution and existing voting laws impede the ability of larger political parties like the Pheu Thai Party to win elections decisively says leader
During Sunday’s meeting, the Pheu Thai Party leader, Cholnan Srikaew, told the audience the current charter effectively impedes the ability of the Pheu Thai Party to win elections decisively.
During the rally, speaker after speaker referenced the triumphant performance of the now-disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party in 2005 when it won an unprecedented 377 seats in the ‘Thaksin era’ and even subsequent victories by the also disbanded People’s Power Party under Samak Sundaravej which installed him as prime minister in January 2008 after it won 233 seats in the 2007 December election.
However, it was the victory by Mr Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra in the 2011 election when the Pheu Thai Party swept to power as a single-party government with 265 seats installing Thailand’s first female prime minister, that was on the minds of most people on Sunday as the party aims to shift again, this time to a younger generation represented by Ms Paetongtarn Shinawatra.
New strategy is to appeal to younger generations
In various Clubhouse interviews on social media over the past few years, Mr Thaksin has emphasised the need for Thai politics to engage with younger voters and 35-year-old ‘Ung In’ is seen as the right choice to do this while maintaining the bond to the earlier movement.
Throughout the speeches on Sunday, there were references to the genetic DNA of the Thai people, the Pheu Thai Party and its ability to unite the whole kingdom as one ‘big house’ a concept that could also be applied to the latest member of the Shinawatra family now embarking on a new quest for power.
There was also no denying the main issue in the next election will be the economy and the failure of the government of General Prayut since the last election in 2019, in economic terms.
Even young student voters appreciate that Pheu Thai is a more promising, realistic option for economic gain than the more progressive Move Forward Party
Even some campus students in Bangkok, who are more likely to support the more progressive and urban-centric Move Forward Party, now acknowledge that Pheu Thai has a stronger track record and could mean better economic opportunities.
The success of the party in the January 30th by-election in Bangkok also sent a strong signal as to which way the wind is blowing.
In October 2021, after Ms Paetongtarn emerged as a potential Pheu Thai Party candidate, 20-year-old Prawravee Suwantawit, a student at Thammasat University, speaking with the Bangkok Post newspaper, conceded this:
‘I think Pheu Thai is one of the good choices to fix the country’s problems, especially the economy,’ she declared.
The student explained that she thought Move Forward, at this time, lacked the experience to handle the situation which has seen the country’s economy stagnate since 2019 and go backwards.
Remove economic inflexibility to return prosperity as chief whip describes the current Thai economy as the ‘first dog of Asia’ recalling past success
On Sunday, Ms Paetongtarn talked about eliminating what she termed the economic inflexibility in Thailand and returning the country to prosperity as the key goal that everyone within the party was dedicated to.
This was referred to in colourful terms by the party’s chief whip, Sutin Klangsaeng, an MP from Maha Sarakham who recalled that Mr Thaksin had moulded the Thai economy into Asia’s 5th economic tiger during his dynamic period in power.
Today, he described the kingdom, economically, as the first dog of Asia.
He said Mr Thaksin was a leader recognised on the international stage.
Ms Paetongtarn: Pheu Thai Party has made mistakes and these will be studied without looking backwards
At the same time, while heralding that the party traced its roots back over 23 years to the Thai Rak Thai Party and a grassroots democratic movement, Ms Paetongtarn acknowledged that mistakes had been made.
When questioned on this, she declined to elaborate and emphasised that she did not want to dwell on the past but said these mistakes would be studied by the current party leadership.
She said she was happy to be working with talented people who had ideas to take Thailand forward but could also accept that everyone makes mistakes.
She said this was part of the professionalism of the party which encouraged people to have ideas.
Former PM’s daughter says Thailand is still in the grip of dictatorship as it does not have a full democracy where people alone elect the government
The former PM’s daughter said it was important for Thailand that the Pheu Thai Party forms the next government to remove the kingdom from the grips of what she termed a dictatorship.
Questioned on the stage about the loaded term and whether it was a declaration of war, she said that it was true as Thailand currently does not have full democracy.
By this, she meant a political system where only the people have a say in the election of a democratic government in the country as before.
However, she emphasised that the overarching goal of the party initially was an economic one.
Return of her father to Thailand not a priority
She was asked about her father, now living in exile as a fugitive and facing several jail terms imposed by Thai courts for corruption. The former PM will be 73 years old in July.
Did he want to return to Thailand?
Yes, she said, but that was not her main goal or priority at this time.
‘Dad wants to come back and raise his grandchildren. It has nothing to do with the Pheu Thai Party. But everything, he has been in my life since I was little. We consult our father all the time because we are a very close family,’ she explained.
She said the main focus for her and her family now was on an effort to improve the economy and the people’s problems which she wanted to focus on.
Appointed to chair an advisory committee to boost participation in the Pheu Thai Party and innovation
Ms Paetongtarn was introduced to the political limelight last October when the party changed leadership at a meeting held in Khon Kaen and was, at that point, appointed to chair an advisory panel aimed at formulating plans for improving participation and innovation.
On Sunday, the party leader, Cholnan Srikaew, said that the leadership of Pheu Thai was like its grassroots linked through blood and the DNA of the people.
He said that this spirit, seen in the past, must be harnessed again to build a future today for Thailand’s children as he introduced the former premier’s youngest daughter to a supportive crowd.
Ms Paetongtarn told her audience that she was only a young girl when her father established the Thai Rak Thai Party.
She said the Pheu Thai Party today still understood the same mission and had never forgotten the grassroots movement that supported it.
Key goals for the party start with economic revival for the younger generation and constitutional reform to give more power to voters to elect governments
She outlined two goals for the party.
The first was the ability to engage younger generations and offer them economic opportunities.
She indicated that this would require a government to reduce or curtail public expenditure in some areas. She said the party was currently studying many policy plans and projects to achieve these aims.
This included supporting gender equality and finding the best people to work for the country
The second goal was to bring an end to what she termed dictatorship which she described as the inability of democratically elected leaders to form a government that can introduce decisive policies.
She said that the power of the state was critical in promoting economic development which adds money to the lives of ordinary people giving them back honour and dignity again.
Membership of the Pheu Thai Party to cost nothing as Ms Paetongtarn appeals for millions more to join the political party through social media and LINE
The emerging political standard-bearer told her audience that the new recruitment drive for the Pheu Thai Party would see membership of the party costing nothing.
She asked people nationwide to encourage each other to join the political movement which she said can be done via social media and the LINE application.
On Monday, in response to Sunday’s speeches and the apparent elevation of Ms Paetongtarn to within reach of the party’s nomination for prime minister in the next General Election, the Vice Minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, Seksakol Atthawong, formerly a Pheu Thai Party member who later defected to the ruling Palang Pracharat Party, warned her not to follow in the footsteps of her aunt, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra and her father Thaksin Shinawatra who, he claimed, had abused parliamentary power for their own benefit.
Silver lining in this for PM Prayut Chan ocha
Both were convicted in Thailand and face jail terms imposed by a court in their absence after they fled abroad where host countries have since accorded them sanctuary.
Ironically, the news of Ms Paetongtarn’s elevation and a renewed focus on the Shinawatra family may help galvanise support for the beleaguered government of Prayut Chan ocha as the political divide in Thailand caused by the ex-PM’s decisive leadership style which endeared him to many also created animosity in equal measure.
It has not gone away.