Former Thai PM’s Daughter Launches Populist Opposition Campaign

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Former Thai PM’s Daughter Launches Populist Opposition Campaign

The Pheu Thai Party is seeking to end nearly a decade of military-backed rule, but faces many challenges in a political system designed in part to exclude it from power.

Former Thai PM’s Daughter Launches Populist Opposition Campaign

The daughter of Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Paetongtarn Shinawatra cheers with supporters during a Pheu Thai party general assembly meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

The youngest daughter of Thailand’s exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has unveiled a populist program designed to topple the unpopular government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at next year’s election, ending nearly a decade of rule by military-backed governments.

Speaking yesterday at a general assembly meeting of her Pheu Thai Party, Paetongtarn Shinawatra proclaimed that a victory for the party would mark the dawn of a new era of social equity for Thailand. The 36-year-old outlined a raft of proposals that she said would benefit ordinary Thais, the Bangkok Post reported. These included a doubling of the minimum wage, and measures to support the price of agricultural goods, reduce energy costs, and expand healthcare coverage.

“The next four years will be the years that our country will bounce back and regain our dignity and pride,” she said, according to The Associated Press. “To think big and act smart will help rebuild our country and improve the livelihood of Thai people.” She added, “All we have to do is to work together to change the country’s leadership.”

Pheu Thai, the largest party in Thailand’s parliament, is the current avatar of the Thai Rak Thai party that Thaksin, a billionaire telecoms mogul, rode to victory in 2001. While Paetongtarn is a relative newcomer to the party – she was appointed in October 2021 to head the party’s Inclusion and Innovation Adviser Committees – her brand recognition and youthful image have since made her a driving force within the party.

Paetongtarn has yet to be formally nominated as Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate for 2023 – last month, she announced that she was pregnant with her second child, who is due in May – but she has previously vowed to lead the party back to power, more than eight years after it was toppled by a coup.

For the Thaksinite movement, the sorts of populist policies announced by Paetongtarn yesterday are well-trodden ground. Thaksin himself was elected by a wide margin in 2001 on a platform promising universal health care and easy access to micro-loans. These policies generated huge amounts of support for Thaksin in the provinces, especially in the north (the home base of the Shinawatra clan) and northeast of the country, which have helped Thaksinite parties to win the most seats in every general election since.

“Prices must be increased for every agricultural commodity,” Paetongtarn said at the party meeting. “We have done this, and we can do it again. By 2027, Thais must earn wages befitting their honor and dignity, at the minimum 600 baht per day.”

Armed with such promises, Pheu Thai, which won the most seats at the last general election in 2019, can once again be expected to perform well, but it is likely to need the support of other parties to form the government given that the 250-member Senate – a body wholly appointed by the royalist establishment – has the power to select the prime minister.

Though it emerged as the single-largest party in the 2019 elections, Pheu Thai was prevented from forming a government by the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), set up at the time to back then-junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha and act as an electoral vehicle for the Royal Thai Army.

However, if Pheu Thai threatens to overrun the preferred proxies of the military-royalist establishment, history suggests that the latter will not flinch from undermining it by either overt or covert means.

From the moment of his election in 2001, Thaksin was seen as a threat to the wealth and power of Thailand’s conservative elites, who have since used a range of sometimes explicitly anti-democratic tactics to extricate his influence from Thai politics. The army removed him from power by a coup in 2006, and when elections returned repeated victories for Thaksin’s proxies, supported by the mass “red shirt” protest movement, their leaders were removed from power on sometimes absurd grounds.

Appearing to lose patience, the military once again resorted to a coup in 2014, which removed the Pheu Thai government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, from power. It then ruled the country by diktat for five years, drafting a new constitution that was designed specifically to prevent Thaksin, who currently lives in exile in Dubai, from ever making a political comeback.

While the PPRP is in a state of flux, with rumors swirling that Prime Minister Prayut might join another military-friendly party ahead of the 2023 election, the determination of the military-royalist establishment to foreclose any possibility of a political comeback by Thaksin should not be underestimated.

Whatever unfolds, it is clear that Pheu Thai faces greater challenges than simply convincing the majority of Thais that it should be allowed to form the next government.