About Politics: Presenting a fresh face – Bangkok Post
September 9, 2023
After failing to form a govt, the MFP is rebranding as a party of the future in opposition to the coalition parties of the past v Sutin Klungsang’s lack of experience in security matters sees the civilian defence minister looking for all the advice he can get.
The Move Forward Party (MFP) was clinging on to the hope that its leader Pita Limjaroenrat, might have one last shot at being put up for a prime ministerial vote on Aug 22.
However, the day saw a resounding victory for the Pheu Thai Party, whose prime ministerial candidate, Srettha Thavisin, received overwhelming support in a joint sitting to capture the top job uncontested.
It was reported the MFP had planned to renominate Mr Pita on Aug 22. But this never materialised as parliament had convened the historic session in which Mr Srettha was elected the country’s 30th prime minister.
Two weeks earlier, the Constitutional Court threw out the MFP’s petition submitted via the Ombudsman seeking to overrule parliament’s resolution not to allow Mr Pita’s renomination. The court reasoned the Ombudsman was not the damaged party in the dispute and was, therefore, an ineligible agent through which the petition could be filed with the court.
The MFP argued the court dropped the petition on a technicality; it did not decide that the parliament resolution against the renomination may or may not be overruled. As long as there was no definitive answer from the court, the party must have felt it could get Mr Pita’s renomination as a prime minister candidate.
The thought, however, proved to be nothing more than consolatory, according to a source.
Mr Pita’s bid for prime minister faded away as Pheu Thai hit the ground running in its bid to assemble a government. It quickly built a coalition and eventually managed to form one with the last two indispensable parties — Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and United Thai Nation (UTN) Party — accepting Pheu Thai’s invitation to jump on board.
Resigned to the painful reality that it was headed for the opposition benches, the MFP did not take long to adjust to its new role, and the party knew it had to act the part, the source said.
The MFP declared on the day Mr Srettha was elected prime minister that it has billed itself as a formidable and proactive opposition party. The MFP is all too familiar with the work after having spent four years keeping tabs on the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration.
The source said the MFP’s plan to expand its support base in anticipation of staging a landslide victory in the next general election in four years’ time may have already been conceived.
The MFP will be up against its former ally and now the ruling party — Pheu Thai. The source believed it is only logical to predict an imminent clash between the country’s two biggest parties.
To Pheu Thai, the MFP is emerging as a thorn in its side. If allowed to go unchecked, the MFP, which is exceptionally adept at harnessing the power of social media and exploiting political marketing resources, stands a strong chance of defeating Pheu Thai in a future poll.
The source said Pheu Thai is being looked at as a neo-conservative force that could adequately stand up to the MFP, after the PPRP and UTN, both deemed the leaders of the ultra-conservative camp, fared poorly in the May 14 polls and became politically emasculated.
The MFP, meanwhile, is on course to reinvent its hallmark political narrative, which has reverberated through and held together the party’s support bases. The new catchphrase being coined represents a shift from the MFP’s old banner advertising the party as a “pro-democracy” element, opposed to “dictator” parties like the PPRP and UTN.
The pro-democracy banner’s political potency was ebbing away after the general election when the “dictatorship-linked” parties were viewed as having been democratised through their participation in the polls, according to the source.
The pro-democracy description was fast going out of fashion, and the MFP has come up with a replacement that promises to deliver a punch without sounding rhetorical.
From the “pro-democracy” fight, the MFP has now moved to highlight the inter-generational divide, embracing the “past vs future” motto.
The new banner is reportedly being spoken about with an increasing degree of emphasis by Pannikar Wanich and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, who are key figures of the Progressive Movement chaired by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
In particular, Mr Piyabutr, a former law professor, was entrusted by the MFP with the role of its campaign assistant during the previous election. He has been known to mentor the MFP on how the party should conduct itself to gain the biggest advantage from political circumstances, and the MFP tends to listen to him.
The new motto will likely set the tone for the MFP in formulating a new strategy to counter the government while also attracting more supporters needed to heighten its prospect of winning big in the next polls.
Treading a careful path
In a new cabinet with many familiar faces, Defence Minister Sutin Klungsang stands out as a real surprise and draws the most attention because he is the first civilian — who is not the prime minister — to assume the post and supposedly knows little about defence matters.
It was widely speculated the veteran Pheu Thai Party politician would be included in the cabinet line-up from the beginning. The question was which portfolio he would be entrusted with.
Sutin: Seeking advice from top brass
Mr Sutin became well known as the opposition chief whip when Pheu Thai led the opposition after the 2019 general election. At that time, he served as a constituency MP representing the northeastern province of Maha Sarakham.
For many observers, the opposition chief whip role is seen as a test for potential cabinet ministers should their party take office. Mr Sutin was praised for his politeness and ability to simplify complicated issues for the public.
His path to the cabinet was set once Pheu Thai’s prime minister candidate, Srettha Thavisin, was endorsed for the top political job. When Mr Sutin’s name first came up as a candidate for the defence portfolio, nobody took it seriously, and Mr Sutin himself reacted with humour.
“Maybe it’s because of my last name [Klungsang means armoury in Thai]. If I became the defence minister, the country would save a lot from weapons spending,” he said when asked about the rumour before the cabinet appointments were finalised.
Soon, the speculation about a likely defence minister shifted to Gen Natthapon Nakpanich, a former secretary-general of the National Security Council and a close associate of former prime minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Mr Sutin was then speculated to be named education minister, and he would have been more than happy if he had been nominated for the post. A graduate of Maha Sarakham Teachers College in his home province, he had been in the teaching profession for almost two decades.
But when Pol Gen Permpool Chidchob, a key figure in the Bhumjaithai Party, emerged as an education minister candidate, Mr Sutin was then tipped to be named either culture or deputy education minister.
He re-emerged as the defence minister candidate amid reports that red-shirt supporters were not happy with Gen Natthapon, whom they understood to be involved in the military crackdown operations against red-shirt protesters from 2009-2010.
Aware of his lack of experience in defence and security affairs, Mr Sutin immediately sought advice from former defence ministers, Gen Thammarak Isarangkura na Ayudhaya and ACM Sukhumpol Suwanatat, after being royally endorsed.
According to Mr Sutin, he also paid visits to other military figures who prefer to stay out of the media glare. Their support and encouragement gave him the confidence to take up the challenge.
The defence minister also said that he could feel that those within the military ranks were being more open to him because of his politeness.
“I feel relieved after receiving support from senior military figures, and I learned that professional soldiers are easy to talk to if we’re clear about what we expect from them.
“We treat them with respect and give them assurances that we are not for personal interest,” he told the Bangkok Post.
Given the fact that the armed forces have already been implementing military reforms in phases, including replacing conscription with a voluntary programme and cutting back on the number of generals, all he needs to do is provide the necessary support.
However, Mr Sutin should expect some turbulence when defending defence spending and how it is essential to national security in parliament. When Pheu Thai was in the opposition, the party called for the defence budget to be trimmed, especially with regard to the purchase of military hardware.
“I don’t have a deep understanding about these issues, but I’ll seek advice from the armed forces and security experts, although some of them have worked for previous governments,” he said.
High on his list of people to approach for advice is Assoc Prof Panitan Wattanayagorn, a security expert who advised the Democrat Party-led administration and former deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwon.
Mr Sutin has also enlisted Chulalongkorn University political scientist Surachart Bamrungsuk as an informal adviser since the academic refused to take on an official role.
“The Srettha administration wants to present itself as a civilian government that is capable of supervising the armed forces. It will set a precedent that a defence minister doesn’t need to be a former serviceman. We just have to be thorough and careful,” he said.