Pheu Thai Party is about to pick its leader amid concerns over its future survival

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The Pheu Thai Party faces several legal challenges that pose a threat to its survival. As the most popular opposition party, its dissolution would be an assault on Thai democracy.

Editorial

On October 28th, the Thai opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP) will select its new leader to challenge Thai Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-ocha in the general election predicted for next year.

However, the leadership nomination comes at an uncertain time for PTP. The party is under assault. On November 28th, prosecutors will decide whether or not to indict eight party members accused of violating the Thai junta’s political gathering ban in May.

If the eight are indicted, it will increase the likelihood of the PTP’s dissolution. The party is already under scrutiny over the alleged involvement of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s in party affairs.

The PTP represents the biggest threat to Prayut’s power

The PTP enjoys widespread support across rural Thailand and its heartlands in the north of the country. This vast support poses a real threat to the military government at the ballot.

An anonymous Southeast Asia analyst within the United States Government told ASEAN Today, “if left undissolved, PTP has a good chance of winning a substantial number of seats in its traditional stronghold”.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra certainly thinks so. He predicted the PTP would win the majority in the House of Representatives in a general election, securing 260 out of the 500 seats.

The analyst within the US government added, “the junta is well aware of PTP’s prevailing popularity in the North and the Northeast, and I suspect they’d leave no stone unturned in crippling the PTP ahead of the election.”

Pro-Shinawatra parties, of which the PTP is the latest, have won every democratic election since 2001. Ahead of the anticipated 2019 election, the PTP has also adopted several populist policies, including banning military conscription and selling three Navy submarines to pay for the construction of new hospitals.

Prayut has the PTP is in his crosshairs

This has put the PTP firmly in the junta’s crosshairs. Three members, Watana Muangsook, Chaturon Chaisang, and Chusak Sirinil are facing sedition charges over their participation in a press conference back in May.

The trio took part in a press conference at the party headquarters in Bangkok during the political ban in May. In the press conference, they accused the junta of abandoning its promises it made upon seizing power in 2014. Five other party members will also face charges, including the PTP’s caretaker leader and secretary-general.

However, the strongest threat to the PTP’s future comes from the junta’s application of the new Political Parties Act. The law prohibits non-party members are prohibited from interfering in party matters. If the Election Commission (EC) finds Thaksin has involved himself in the party’s management, it could provide grounds for the PTP’s dissolution in the Constitutional Court.

The EC is currently investigating PTP over allegations that Thaksin Shinawatra made a video call to PTP. The PTP has categorically denied Thaksin’s involvement in party affairs.

The PTP has a backup plan, but that too is under threat

Anticipating the dissolution of PTP, the party created a Pheu Tham, a surrogate party. Pheu Tham was created to allow members of the PTP to run in the election under the banner of another party in the event of the PTP’s dissolution.

However, there are concerns over the timeframe of the election. If the junta indicts the eight party members on November 28th and dissolves the PTP, its members may struggle to join Pheu Tham in time for the election.

Thai law dictates that politicians running for office must have been a member of their political party for 90 days prior to the election date. If the junta confirms February 24th as its chosen election date, the PTP members would have less than 90 days to join Pheu Tham, creating further legal uncertainty over PTP members’ ability to stay in the race.

A source within PTP told the Bangkok Post, “the November 28th date set by prosecutors to decide the fate of the eight party executives is making potential candidates nervous about the party’s future and the 90-day rule”.

As the junta continues its legal assault on the PTP and its surrogate parties, the Thai opposition will have an uphill battle to secure victory at the ballot boxes. Even if Thaksin’s prediction rings true and PTP secures 260 seats out of the 500 up for grabs, the unelected 250 junta-appointed Senate seats will make it difficult for the PTP to form a government.

The PTP would need to enter a coalition with other anti-junta parties. However, the NCPO could use the 250-strong bloc to form a government with other pro-military parties and have Prayut lead a loose coalition of pro-junta parties.

The junta’s amended constitution coupled with its sustained and coordinated legal assault on the PTP is robbing the Thai population of its voice at the ballot box, putting Thai democracy under threat. The junta is unravelling almost a century of democratic progress and dragging the population headfirst into an authoritarian future.