A familiar picture offers a window for change in Thai politics

Former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing possible imprisonment for criminal negligence over her government's subsidies for rice farmers.
Former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing possible imprisonment for criminal negligence over her government's subsidies for rice farmers. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Before the Puea Thai Party, there was the People's Power Party and Thai Rak Thai party. The latter two were dissolved by the courts over the past decade. Their key members and executives were banned from politics. Prime ministers from those parties were either toppled by the military, or ousted by judicial rulings.

For longtime observers of Thai politics, the legal tribulations of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra follow a familiar arc. Facing possible imprisonment for criminal negligence over her government's subsidies for rice farmers, she failed to turn up in court on Friday (Aug 25) to hear the verdict. A warrant for her arrest has been issued.

But analysts, Puea Thai insiders and even its critics say this will have little impact on the party itself.

"No matter what happens, Puea Thai will have a new leader and still win the election," former energy minister and senior party member Pichai Naripthaphan tells The Straits Times.

Whether they can form the government after that is another matter. The new Constitution enacted in April this year leaves little room for even large political parties to set agendas. The ruling junta maintains broad oversight, via a powerful Senate and a binding 20-year national strategy. There is even a provision for an unelected prime minister.

Even as the military government promises to hold an election on a yet undetermined date, political gatherings are still banned.

Such uncertainties explain why Thailand's largest and most dominant party appears to be lying low. Former health minister and Thai Rak Thai deputy leader Sudarat Keyuraphan is a contender for Puea Thai's top job. She visited Puea Thai's stronghold in the northeast earlier this month, distributing aid to flood victims in a well-publicised event.

Yet party insiders say it is too risky to float new leaders, given the disproportionate power of the military government to snuff out political careers. Past experience has taught Puea Thai not to "waste" key people in executive positions, given how often they are targeted by lawsuits, one longtime member says. Yingluck was neither secretary-general nor party leader.

This of course has partly to do with the fact that her brother is Thaksin Shinawatra, who founded Thai Rak Thai and was elected as prime minister before being ousted by a military coup in 2006.

Billionaire Thaksin endeared himself to the rural masses with policy pledges that were followed through after elections, however flawed. Until then, this group had played second fiddle to urban voters.

Thaksin is blamed by Bangkok's elites for orchestrating the Kingdom's past decade of political turbulence, even though he has lived abroad for much of it to evade a graft-related jail sentence.

The anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) will not rule out a return until the Shinawatras and their nominees leave the political scene.

"It's difficult to say if the movement will come back," former PAD co-leader Suriyasai Katasila tells The Straits Times. "(Thaksin's domination) is the core element of the conflict."

While Yingluck's legal trials will not fundamentally alter Puea Thai's political realities, it opens a window for change. Australian National University fellow Tyrell Haberkorn thinks Puea Thai's future leaders are unlikely to be previous stalwarts, because "(the junta) will make it impossible for them to participate in politics, and also because, as part of a transition to democracy, there will be a transformation in what people will want".

"The party has the opportunity to chart a new path with a clear separation from the Shinawatra family," Dr Haberkorn says. "This may mean the party cannot survive, but … it may create an opening for the party to chart a new path centered on its supporters rather than the Shinawatras."

Asean's second largest economy is still grappling with the kind of inequality that leaves over 60 per cent of land in the hands of 10 per cent of all landowners.

Puea Thai supporters, notes Chiang Mai University historian Attachak Sattayanurak, have so far been passive consumers of the party's policies.

This may change as Thailand's emerging rural entrepreneurs become more assertive, and demand more from the party that made them recognise their electoral power.