News analysis

Thai opposition has big hopes for small and nimble strategy

New system in next year's polls forces parties to split up, spread out

In a corner of a cavernous Bangkok shopping mall better known as a hangout for Thailand's "red shirt" political faction is the headquarters of the new Pheu Chart Party.

Its leader is a businessman and one-time deputy commerce minister, and till recently, a member of the Pheu Thai Party which was ousted from government in the 2014 military coup.

Mr Songkram Kitlertphairoj thinks that leaving Pheu Thai was only natural. The kingdom is expected to hold an election in February under new rules.

"We have a Constitution that forces parties to split up," he told The Straits Times yesterday. "Our rival has already split into six or seven parties, so we need to split to secure our seats, so that we will not lose."

The rooks and pawns are coming into view as Thailand readies for an election tentatively set for Feb 24.

After some delay, the Election Commission this week revealed boundaries of constituencies that were amalgamated since the last election. Ten out of the 23 constituency seats removed nationwide were in the north-east - Pheu Thai's populous stronghold.

Mr Songkram Kitlertphairoj, leader of Thailand's Pheu Chart Party, in front of his party's logo.
Mr Songkram Kitlertphairoj, leader of Thailand's Pheu Chart Party, in front of his party's logo. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Meanwhile, the new Palang Pracharath Party, helmed by key ministers in the military government and widely expected to push for the return of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, has been busy accepting defectors from other parties.

The most surprising defection so far is that of Mr Dejnattawit Teriyapirom, whose father, former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom, is serving a 42-year prison sentence for falsifying government-to-government rice deals between China and Thailand. Touted as a "new generation" candidate by Pheu Thai only recently, Mr Dejnattawit was unveiled as a Palang Pracharath member last Saturday.

One day later, Mr Panthongtae Shinawatra, the only son of billionaire fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, stole the thunder by announcing on Facebook that he had formally joined Pheu Thai. The TV station owner had till now stayed out of politics even as his father - and later his aunt Yingluck Shinawatra - became prime ministers.

While the Shinawatra clan and their allies have been repeatedly ousted by coups or court rulings since 2001, they have been re-elected by voters each time under a different banner.

The new electoral system next year will likely put a governing majority out of Pheu Thai's reach, but the behemoth has responded by dispersing its stalwarts across what observers widely see as sister parties.

Pheu Chart, for example, is helmed by Mr Songkram, who owns the Imperial World mall that has served as a longtime hub for Bangkok-based "red shirts", a key support base of Pheu Thai.

Thai Raksa Chart Party sports a logo uncannily similar to Pheu Thai's. One of its newest members is former deputy prime minister Chaturon Chaisaeng.

Pheu Tham Party is led by Ms Nalinee Taveesin, another minister in the previous Pheu Thai government.

Political scientist Attasit Pankew from Thammasat University said that having several parties ensures that "even if they cannot win the election, they can be in second place". This gives Pheu Thai and its allies a powerful position in the future government, which analysts expect to be ruled by a coalition.

 
 

In the previous election, parliamentarians were elected through a mixture of two methods: Candidates contesting in constituencies won through a first-past-the-post system, while another set of "party list" legislators were picked based on the proportion of votes their parties secured nationwide.

Voters under this system made two choices at the ballot box - picking a constituency candidate and a political party that they wanted to support. Under this old system, Pheu Thai won 265 of the 500 Lower House seats in the 2011 election.

But under the new system next year, voters will only pick the constituency candidates and a vote for a candidate also means a vote for his party. Party-list seat allocations will also be capped. If a party wins an overwhelming number of constituencies, it may well end up with no party-list seats.

Prime Minister Prayut, having steered the country through a sensitive royal transition, stands a chance of returning to office even without running for election if he has enough Upper and Lower House supporters in the future Parliament. That is why several politicians cried foul when his government recently approved an 87 billion baht (S$3.6 billion) aid package for 14.5 million low-income earners and pensioners, accusing Mr Prayut of buying votes.

Mr Chaturon yesterday declared the goal of Thai Raksa Chart was to prevent Mr Prayut from returning as prime minster, and to stop the junta from prolonging its control over the country.

Having laid low for the past four years under military rule, Pheu Thai has apparently decided that it is nimbler being small.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2018, with the headline 'Thai opposition has big hopes for small and nimble strategy'. Print Edition | Subscribe