Asia

Thaksin's daughter takes up party post, sparking speculation about future plans

BANGKOK – The youngest daughter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has taken up a post in Thailand’s largest opposition party, Pheu Thai, sparking rumours of a Shinawatra family comeback.

This will be Ms Paetongtarn “Ing” Shinawatra’s first public foray into politics but analysts were not surprised by her appointment as head of the party’s Inclusion and Innovation Advisory Committee, and did not rule out the possibility that she could be put up as a potential candidate for prime minister in the future.

“Pheu Thai has been plagued with infighting and defections lately. There were rumours that Thaksin would attempt to reassert family control in advance of the next election, which might come as soon as next year. So I am not surprised at all by this news,” said director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Dr Duncan McCargo, an expert in Thai politics.

Despite not holding any official role in the former ruling party, Thaksin’s influence behind the scenes in Pheu Thai is an open secret, said analysts, noting that his ex-wife and Ms Paetongtarn’s mother, Ms Potjaman Na Pombejra, is widely believed to have significant control over the finances of Thaksin’s parties.

“Ms Paetongtarn’s appointment solidifies this understanding that it’s a family affair,” said Mr Isra Sunthornvut, Thailand country director at consultancy firm Vriens & Partners, who is a former member of Parliament from the Democrat Party.

Thaksin, 72, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006, has lived in self-imposed exile for more than a decade. Despite this, his political clout helped propel other family members to high office, with brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat and youngest sister Yingluck Shinawatra serving as premiers after him. Both were forced out of office on legal grounds before their terms were up.

Thaksin now lives mostly in Dubai to avoid serving prison time in Thailand on corruption charges that he says were politically motivated.

Most recently in July, Thaksin said during a regular talk show session over social media app Clubhouse that he would be returning to Thailand through the “front door, not the back door…soon”.

“(Ms Paetongtarn’s new role) could definitely be a stepping stone for Thaksin to return to Thailand. Maybe the only way for that to happen is for Pheu Thai to become the government,” said  ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute visiting fellow, Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood.  

The youngest of Thaksin’s three children, Ms Paetongtarn serves as deputy chief executive officer at family-owned real estate firm Rende Development. Her husband Pidok “Por” Sooksawas is a commercial airline pilot and they have a 10-month-old daughter.

Analysts say that the Shinawatra family name is half the battle won for the 35-year-old who graduated from Chulalongkorn University’s Political Science Faculty and studied international hotel management at the University of Surrey in England.

Thaksin remains a significant electoral asset for the Pheu Thai party in the heartland areas of north and north-east Thailand, said Prof McCargo.

“Pheu Thai also benefits from Thaksin’s old reputation for good economic management from the early 2000s, in contrast with the poor performance of the current government,” he added.

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While some people – Pheu Thai members included – might want to move beyond the polarising Thaksin brand, his influence is still present.

“As soon as the ‘Shinawatra’ name comes onboard, the magic is there,” said Mr Isra, adding that the well-oiled Pheu Thai media machinery could help push Ms Paetongtarn, who could draw younger voters to the party, higher up the ranks.

There is speculation that the next election could be next year and the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), as well as other major political groups, have already announced their candidates for prime minister.

But Pheu Thai – the largest single party in the lower house of Parliament – has kept mum so far although it was quoted as saying that it would nominate three potential candidates who “can connect with older and younger generations alike.”

When asked by the media to comment on whether she would be nominated for the role, Ms Paetongtarn said: “That’s a matter for the future. I am focusing on my current duties.”

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While Ms Paetongtarn might be seen as a political novice, Dr Punchada believes that she could very likely be nominated as one of the party’s prime ministerial candidates.

“It took just a matter of weeks for Yingluck to enter campaigning at the last minute and become prime minister,” said Dr Punchada, who pointed out that the former premier emerged from obscurity and was thrust into the limelight less than two months before election day in 2011.

“Anything is possible,” said Dr Punchada

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