Late last month, Thailand’s main “opposition” Pheu Thai party – relative to the ruling military junta government now in place – announced that Viroj Pao-in has emerged as the party’s leader ahead of upcoming elections. While there is still much uncertainty around what this means for the future of the party, including who will actually be its prime ministerial candidate if it is to move forward to contest, the development has nonetheless cast further attention onto the country’s upcoming polls and what the mix of parties will be like.
Pheu Thai, the party founded by exiled businessman and former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, has long faced scrutiny and harassment in Thailand despite its success at the polls. Thaksin was himself overthrown in a coup in 2006, and his sister Yingluck was overthrown in the last coup in May 2014 which saw army general Prayut Chan-o-cha come to power and serving as the current premier. Since then, despite multiple promises of elections and a return to democratic rule, no polls have been held.
The latest round of hype about potential polls in Thailand has emerged following the junta’s suggestion that they could take place next year. Since then, other moves have been taken as well, including the easing of a ban on political activity in the country that had been viewed as a way to suppress dissent and debate. Pheu Thai’s announcement of its new party leader came in that context, which has raised questions about what the shape of Thailand’s opposition will look like.
Yet some fundamental issues remain unresolved. While the party has selected a leader in the 86-year-old Viroj, a police lieutenant-general, a former deputy prime minister and acting head of the party, it has not selected its prime ministerial candidate.
That is not entirely surprising. After all, Pheu Thai’s own political future is uncertain. Its association with Thaksin remains a sore point for the military and underpins Prayut’s iron-fisted approach to politics. For instance, Pheu Thai has had to deny any ties with Pheu Tham which media reports have said was widely believed to be a “back-up party,” already registered with the election commission, to be used if Pheu Thai is prevented from competing, or as one commentator said “in the event of a political accident.”
There are other matters that remain to be sorted out as well. There are other parties that could be in the mix, and while Pheu Thai’s popularity has long been clear given the populist policies under Thaksin, the years of turmoil it has undergone and multiple leadership changes, may have reduced its appeal somewhat. The junta’s adjustments to the country’s political rules of the game will play into both the process as well as the outcome of polls. The role of the military in any post-election context, including Prayut himself, is also unclear, especially given his own previously ambiguous statements about his future position.
And, of course, given the multiple postponements we have already seen regarding the holding of polls, one should not take for granted that they will actually be held on time, or hang on to the illusion that they will be representative of the true sentiments of the Thai people and in line with the elusive democracy the country has been seeking since the junta took over. As has been proven before in Thailand in recent years, election outcomes are often the start of the story, not its end.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.