News analysis

A window for change opens for Puea Thai

Yingluck's trial gives the party a chance to chart a new path free of the Shinawatra family

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 observers of Thai politics, the legal tribulations of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra follows a familiar arc. Facing possible imprisonment for criminal negligence over her government's subsidies for rice farmers, she failed to turn up in court last Friday 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.

Whether it can form the government is another matter. The new Constitution enacted in April 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.

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 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 north-east 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, a long-time 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.

While Yingluck's legal trial 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," he says.

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

Puea Thai supporters, says 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 27, 2017, with the headline 'A window for change opens for Puea Thai'. Print Edition | Subscribe