Puea Thai Party's Flip-Flop Leadership

Originally published on Siam Voices on September 15, 2010. The opposition Puea Thai Party (PT) had some turbulent days in the past week with the sudden announcement of Yongyuth Wichaidit stepping down as the party's leader. But why?

Yongyuth has served for less than two years as an unhappy nominal Pheu Thai leader, whose job was exclusively to fulfil legal and constitutional requirements of a political party. It was no secret that he wanted out. It's unclear, though, whether yesterday's sudden announcement followed a long-distance request from Thaksin or Yongyuth simply felt he had had it with all the disrespect and knives in the back. [...]

"Party chief quits in mystery move", The Nation, September 10, 2010

Yongyuth himself said he wants to make room for the party to restructure itself for the next general election. "Today I tender my resignation in order to ensure my party's readiness for the next poll," he said.

The resigning of the party leader followed after the equally surprising announcement of a 'peace proposal' to the government earlier this month. The five-point-plan states that PT is ready to hold talks with "all parties in conflict" and "exchange opinions in a peaceful manner." Of course, like any plan, it had it's opponents from their own supporters and fiercest enemies and it had doubters.

What then followed were mixed signals. The party itself was at doubt on who will actually represent the party in the talks, then it suddenly has quit the reconciliation process and then it was reconsidering again which then the story, for the time being, peaked with Yongyuth's resignation.

The question of his successor flared up immediately and one name has been touted suspiciously often in the headlines.

A source in the opposition party said Pol Gen Kowit, who is well connected with leading bureaucrats, is expected to lead the party into a "reconciliation process". [...]

Pol Gen Kowit is tipped as the strongest candidate because of his clean image, seniority and respectful nature, the source said.

"He has no known affiliations with the Shinawatra family and he isn't afraid of a party dissolution and being stripped of voting rights," the source said.

"Yongyuth quits as Puea Thai leader, making way for Kowit", Bangkok Post, September 10, 2010

A clean politician? May be. Well connected? You bet! But some would be really surprised to hear how well connected Kowit is.

Pol Gen Kowit was in Class 6 of the pre-cadet school with Gen Sonthi. He was also a member of Council for National Security (CNS) set up immediately after the coup on Sept 19, 2006 military coup that removed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power. [...]

"Coup leaders welcome Pol Gen Kowit", Bangkok Post, September 10, 2010

With these credentials, Kowit would make a definitely more 'agreeable' party leader for some. But with an endorsement by coup leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, it could have made Kowit unelectable for many party members (and certainly many red shirts) as PT leader. Also, Kowit has failed to publicly state any desire to succeed Yongyuth as the party leader and consequently ignored any formality in order to be nominated as the party leader.

This might explain what happened on Tuesday when the party was electing a 'new' leader.

Yongyuth Wichaidit was yesterday re-elected leader of the opposition Pheu Thai Party, with overwhelming support from party MPs just days after his resignation.

The party's general meeting held at its headquarters voted 267 to 6, with four abstentions, in support of Yongyuth as its new leader. The decision came after a heated debate between a small group of northeastern MPs and the rest of the party, particularly those from the North and Central region.

"Yongyuth returns as party leader amid turmoil", The Nation, September 15, 2010

So, we're back to square one again! Apparently better stick with the status quo for now instead of having a battle for the leadership.

Of course, with everything related to PTP, it didn't take long until somebody mentioned Thaksin's possible involvement. First, at the heels of Thaksin's recent visit to South Africa, there was an outpouring of tweets by him last week where we was extensively talking about his thoughts on the peace process (here's a sample tweet in Thai). Then there were news of Puea Thai MPs meeting Thaksin in Moscow, possibly to counsel with him over the upcoming changes - even though any involvement by Thaksin has been quickly denied before.

If Thaksin really has given his approval to possible structural changes in the party, the re-election of Yongyuth is a blow to Thaksin's influence over PT. Nevertheless, that still doesn't stop both The Nation and Bangkok Post stating that the Puea Thai Party is still listening to Thaksin's command.

What this (no-)show of this party reveals, is that it is still trying to find a new direction and with some MPs deflecting to the rival Bhumjaithai Party, it has real problems keeping itself together.

While the Puea Thai Party is struggling, the government will continue its 'reconciliation' efforts - no matter with whom.