Thailand’s Opposition Movement, Ousted in Coup, Sees Chance for a Comeback

  • Pheu Thai Party sees good odds of majority when election held
  • Party official says uproar over luxury watches damaged junta
Pongthep Thepkanjana Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Thailand’s main opposition Pheu Thai Party, whose leader was ousted by the military, said it has a good chance of performing well once the generals allow a fresh election as economic gains fail to reach poorer citizens.

Disaffection over the economy and the length of military rule will bolster the party’s support, according to Phongthep Thepkanjana, a deputy prime minister in the Pheu Thai-led administration ousted in a 2014 coup. He said the party, which is linked to exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, has a good chance of winning a majority in the lower house of parliament.

"Growth is good for some sectors covering a small group of people, but not the majority of the public," Phongthep, 61, said in an interview Wednesday. Thailand’s pace of expansion trails behind neighbors in Southeast Asia, he added, without citing any other specific statistics.

Pheu Thai and other parties linked to Thaksin have won the past five elections, only to be unseated by the courts or the military. The discord reflects deep fissures in Thai society between urban royalists, known as the so-called yellow shirts, and Thaksin and his rural support base, the red shirts.

Former army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s administration has prioritized infrastructure projects and the development of advanced industries as additional drivers for the $407 billion economy. Growth has recovered from a nadir in the period covering the coup, reaching a four-year high in the third quarter of last year, but nations such as Indonesia and Vietnam are expanding faster.

Prayuth’s administration last month took steps to help people on low incomes. It approved a 150 billion baht ($4.7 billion) supplementary budget, partly to fund poverty alleviation initiatives, and later raised the minimum wage nationwide for the first time in five years by an average 3.4 percent.

An official report on gross domestic product is due Feb. 19. The Finance Ministry estimates 4 percent expansion in 2017.

Amid the question marks over the economy, the junta has been damaged by criticism of the defense minister for wearing a number of luxury watches, according to Phongthep.

The national anti-graft panel is due to complete a probe this month into watches and jewelry that weren’t listed by the minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, in his assets. Pictures on a Facebook page called CSI LA claim to show Prawit wearing a number of luxury watches. Prawit has welcomed the probe and said he borrowed the timepieces.

Prayuth unseated the elected Pheu Thai government over three years ago after prolonged street demonstrations hurt the economy. He clamped down on political activity under a pledge to restore stability. 

Timelines for a return to democracy have repeatedly been pushed back, most recently to around February 2019 from November this year. The government says the process is proceeding in line with the constitution. 

"If they want to extend, to prolong, they can find some legal tactics," Phongthep said.

The current stretch of military rule is one of the longest since the 1970s, in a country with a history of army intervention.

Under the constitution, post-election Thailand would have a military-appointed senate and elected lower house. A prime ministerial candidate must achieve a majority in a joint vote of both chambers, making it challenging for Pheu Thai to emerge with the leader even if it takes control of the lower house.

More recently, divisions have emerged among those who initially backed the coup over the extended wait for elections.

"Before this, three years ago, these people would vote against us, but now some of these people will vote for us," Phongthep said. "We can say we are one of the parties which stands firm against a non-democratic regime."

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