The emergence of Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of exiled former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin, as a political figure and possible prime ministerial candidate herself at the next general election could exacerbate political divisions in Thailand.
Paetongtarn was appointed in October as chief of the Inclusion and Innovation Adviser Committees for the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, the country’s largest party, whose de facto head is Thaksin.
Following the appointment, many now believe she will be the party’s candidate for prime minister in the next general election, which could take place next year. At this point, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is expected to run for reelection.
Thaksin’s opponents, who supported the last two coups against him and his sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, already say that this could be Shinawatra Part 3.
However, Paetongtarn, who has never held any political position before her Pheu Thai appointments, has largely remained silent on the topic.
Pheu Thai leader Chonlanan Srikaew told VOA the party is only testing her popularity at the moment.
“No, we do not have that idea right now,” Chonlanan said when asked whether the party would nominate Paetongtarn to run for prime minister.
“Paetongtarn is now the head of the Pheu Thai family who is helping with the expansion of the family’s base and this appointment has no direct connection with the candidacy.”
“For the question of whether Paetongtarn should be a candidate or not, this is also what we wanted to ask the people,” he said – this status is seen as a way to test her popularity without incurring criticism that Thaksin still controls the party.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, told VOA that Pheu Thai is only testing the water, but no matter what, Paetongtarn is now the party’s symbolic leader.
He said the recent strong show of support for Paetongtarn when she went to the country’s Northeast, the party’s main stronghold, by members of the anti-junta, pro-Thaksin Red Shirt faction, was a good sign for her possible nomination.
“So far, she fits the bill,” Thitinan said.
“She is well-received by the party’s supporters, the Red Shirts are regrouping around her, and she seems to be learning the ropes really quickly and they might need her, and Thaksin needs her,” he said.
Thitinan said what Thaksin learned from the Yingluck era is that he needs someone more directly connected to him, and at this moment his youngest daughter is the answer.
Thaksin opponents said the only reason why Pheu Thai would nominate Paetongtarn is that Thaksin is still looking for ways to return to Thailand without having to spend a day in jail.
Thaksin fled the country after Thailand’s 2006 coup because of various charges against him, including a corrupt land deal, an illegal holding of shares in the state's phone concessions and a royal defamation charge, which he said were politically motivated.
Suthep Thaugsuban, who led People's Democratic Reform Committee protests against Yingluck’s government before the 2014 coup, said in a video in April that Paetongtarn could be as corrupt as her father and vowed that he would continue to fight against the “Thaksin regime.”
“I was afraid after I heard about the landslide strategy and that one party could be running the country again,” Suthep said.
Pheu Thai has a strategy of winning more than 250 of the parliamentary seats or at least 18 million of 35 million votes so they can out-vote the 250 junta-appointed senators who are likely to support Prayut or another candidate of the ruling pro-military Palang Pracharath Party.
“I was afraid because I saw it before, the brother [Thaksin] was corrupt, the sister [Yingluck] was corrupt and if the daughter becomes the prime minister and she is also corrupt, what can we do? I do not want to go out to protest on the street again,” Suthep said.
Chonlanan denied Suthep’s claims and said that those in power have been using the excuse of eradicating the “Thaksin regime” to dissolve Thaksin’s parties in the past and they are still looking for ways to use it against the Pheu Thai Party.
“That is what they have already accomplished so it is normal for them to be wary of the children of the Shinawatra family,” Chonlanan said.
“The party has been closely monitoring such rhetoric … and we have been showing the people that we are transparent, that we are not under the control of one family,” he said.
Thitinan said the Pheu Thai Party still has a strong base in the countryside of the North and the Northeast and they are gaining supporters from the Red Shirts, which means that the party has a chance to gain the most MP seats at the next general election and a landslide is “very possible.”
Thitinan said the next general election will be a referendum on Prayut, Thailand’s unpopular prime minister.
“It would not be surprising if there is going to be a lot of anti-military and anti-coup votes that will play into the Pheu Thai support base,” he said.
However, winning in a landslide might not always be a good thing, he said.
“To me, the crisis began in February 2005 when Thaksin was reelected by a landslide,” he said, referring to the subsequent two coups, massacre of Red Shirts, and political division and tension between pro-democracy and royalist supporters.
“The worst thing you can do it Thai politics is to run for office and get elected by a landslide, since once you become a political juggernaut from elected office in Thailand, there will be a lot of jealousy, and the knives will come out because the real power holders in this country are not elected,” he said, referring to Thaksin and Yingluck.
Thitinan said he expects there to be some kind of accusations and attempts to derail Pheu Thai soon and there could be another party dissolution – Thaksin parties were dissolved by the constitutional court in steps political experts believe were meant to get rid of Thaksin.
He said one of the accusations could be that Thaksin is pulling the strings behind the party, which would be considered a violation of the law, which prohibits a party from being influenced or controlled by an outsider.
He said if Pheu Thai were dissolved, it could lead to another protest against the government like the Red Shirt uprising in 2009 against the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, who they believed had been installed by coup makers who toppled Thaksin, and the cycle will continue.
Thitinan said that apart from judicial dissolution, “the ultimate last resort is a military coup.”
“However, a military has a very high cost so the military would want to avoid that so they will try probably work with the judiciary push again,” he said.