Thailand’s opposition searches for a leader

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 23, 2011 With a potential snap election looming in the not-so-distant future all political parties are preparing for a very short, but certainly intense, campaign. For the opposition Puea Thai party (PT) this means finding a new leader and a promising PM candidate. But not much has changed since last year when then-leader Yongyuth Wichaidit was bizarrely re-elected just days after he resigned (see my and Bangkok Pundit's previous posts here and here, respectively). In fact, more contenders have entered the scene.

Last week's censure debate was a good opportunity for Puea Thai not only to attack the government on their countless wrongdoings and thus present them in a bad light, but also for some MPs to audition as the next leader of the party or even of the country. The opposition agreed for Mingkwan Saengsuwan to lead the parliamentary grilling. The former Toyota executive and former Commerce Minister is described as soft-spoken but also largely unknown to the public. And while the mud-slinging was left to others, Mingkwan tried to portray himself as the next PM. Bangkok Post's columnist Suranand Vejjajiva wrote about his performance:

So far Mr Mingkwan has performed better than expected. He was calm and able to control his opening delivery which listed all the allegations of abuse, corruption and mismanagement of the current administration. Although listeners were somewhat distracted by his 119 plates of prepared PowerPoint display, this performance surpassed his previous speeches. If he can tie up the loose ends and make a convincing closing statement tonight, his path towards leading Puea Thai would become clearer.

"Win-lose-draw in the censure debate", by Suranand Vejjajiva, Bangkok Post, March 18, 2011

That also applies to the rest of the sessions, going so far as to announce in his closing speech that he'd be the party's candidate to contest against Abhisit in the next election (btw, the government unsurprisingly survived the no-confidence vote). Nevertheless, or maybe because of that, Mingkwan was criticized for his performance by his own party:

Pheu Thai Party MPs will take their party list MP Mingkwan Saengsuwan to task for "overpresenting" himself as the PM candidate of Pheu Thai during last week's censure motion, a source said yesterday. (...)

Some party MPs are disappointed with Mingkwan's performance in grilling the government saying he spent too much time on the floor wooing voters instead of launching a stinging attack, causing a party setback, the source said.

"Pheu Thai MPs critical of party's censure performance", The Nation, March 21, 2011

And worse, during a general meeting on Tuesday, where a new party leader should have been nominated, Mingkwan was left hung out to dry because the party members couldn't decide on a new front-runner. Part of the plan was to make him the new head of PT and to introduce his restructuring plan for the party. But the plan was thwarted by none other than...

However, Thaksin, who is the party's de facto leader, passed a message to the meeting blocking the group's plan saying it was not the right time to make a choice. The party could continue its activities under its current structure which would not cause it any harm.

Earlier, there had been speculation that Thaksin would choose between Mr Mingkwan and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, considered an outsider to be the party's candidate for premier.

"Thaksin leaves Mingkwan dangling", Bangkok Post, March 23, 2011

The role of Thaksin in the Puea Thai Party should not be underestimated*. The party is still very much loyal to him and the fact that members are still meeting and consulting him for key decisions indicates that Thaksin is still calling the shots in the re-re-incarnation of his former Thai Rak Thai party. Since late last year, it was reported that he wants to 'install' his own sister Yingluck as the new party leader.

Yingluck Shinawatra is the youngest sibling of Thaksin and an experienced business executive, having served at the family-owned AIS communications and now working at SC Asset, a property firm with the Shinawatra family as the largest major shareholder (conflict of interest, anyone?). Although she is not a party executive or even a member and has virtually no political experience, she claims to have attended several party executive meetings. Despite showing no clear sign of any political ambitions and even just recently ruling out a potential candidacy, Yingluck is still being brokered as the top contender at PT. She is also blessed by the support of somebody, who was just recently considered a front-runner as well.

Those backing her include Puea Thai chairman of MPs Chalerm Yubamrung, who has been disgruntled by Mr Mingkwan's attempt to take the party's helm. The veteran politician has threatened to quit the party if Mr Mingkwan is successful.

"Yingluck rules out taking Puea Thai helm", Bangkok Post, March 28, 2011

Chalerm, a seasoned politician for over 25 years, has made no qualms in the past about his contempt towards Mingkwan. Already earlier this year he threatened to leave the party should Mingkwan lead the censure debates and on Wednesday, as a consequence of being snubbed...

Veteran politician Chalerm Yubamrung has resigned as a party-list MP, but remains a member of the Puea Thai Party, Si Sa Ket MP Thanes Kruerat said on Wednesday. (...)

Asked about a report that Mr Chalerm felt belittled when asked by Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former executive of the dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party and an adviser to Puea Thai's censure debate team, to cut short his debate speech in the House of Representatives, to allow Mingkwan Saengsuwan more time to deliver his conclusion, Mr Thanes admitted that this might also be a reason.

"Miffed Chalerm resigns MP seat", Bangkok Post, March 23, 2011

So that pretty much leaves us with Yingluck and Mingkwan. If Mingkwan becomes the front-runner, it means for the party a step away from Thaksin, since the party restructuring may or may not be a means to lessen the influence of the exiled former prime minister. If Yingluck becomes the party's new leader, it's underlining Thaksin's influence in the Puea Thai Party and strengthening his position as the de-facto leader who pulls the strings even from outside the country. The party has announced that it will reveal its PM candidate after the parliament has dissolved, which should in the coming months. Until then, they will have to assess their options and ultimately decide which way they will go into the next elections.

*I should stress that no one should fall for the over-simplified "Red Shirts = Puea Thai Party = Thaksin" fallacy that many of their enemies would like us to think. Though there are overlapping intersections between these three areas (e.g. red shirt leader Jatuporn is a Puea Thai MP), in my opinion there are (like in any other movement) different visions among the red shirts and part of them want to move beyond Thaksin. But on the other hand, seeing Jatuporn still on stage and Thaksin still phoning-in during the rallies show that the leaders might be one step behind their followers.