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New parties present faint flicker of hope

With lingering political polarisation, some people have been looking at alternative "third" parties, hoping they may be able to steer the country out of the challenges it faces.

Nevertheless, a tumultuous start notwithstanding, these new parties seem to be fizzling out.

While the political scene seems relatively calm and peaceful, some see it as a good opportunity for these parties to band together. But that sense of calm is only superficial. Public anger is indeed simmering.

The parties are exercising restraint as they look forward to the “end game”, with the elections just months away. Moreover, there are signs the ex-junta regime is decaying, while their rivals are gaining strength day by day.

But an assault on activist Srisuwan Janya this week by a man from the red-shirt camp must make us reconsider whether Thai society today really is as peaceful as the Prayut Chan-o-cha government claims. On the contrary, political conflicts have hardly eased. They are still running deep in the country as divisiveness widens.

Gen Prayut, who just survived a Constitutional Court ruling over when his eight-year tenure as prime minister began, seems to want to stay in power, along with much of the old guard. And don’t forget that they still have the junta-appointed Senate on their side. If the latter votes in favour of Gen Prayut while other parties perform better in the polls, a political time bomb will start ticking.

Indeed, we should be worried about the assault on Mr Srisuwan as public opinion on this case suggests that brewing political violence could escalate. It’s quite shocking to see quite a few people endorsing, if not encouraging, this kind of attack. This begs the question, what is next? Would it be knife or gun attacks, or bombs aimed at people with a different political stance?

Some academics said the assault reflects deep-rooted conflicts that have intensified following the 2014 coup by Gen Prayut and the military cliques.

Gen Prayut, despite the recent charter court ruling that limits his eligibility as PM to 2025, has refused to clarify his future plans. Without spelling out his plans for his political career, the army-leader-turned-politician shows that he is trying to cling to power, and may not hesitate to make use of existing mechanisms created during the time of the since-dissolved National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to prolong his stay in power. Therefore, political violence and protests could flare up again.

With that precarious scenario in mind, alternative parties should be an ideal option to provide a middle path that our highly polarised society is much in need of.

Indeed, the installation of Chadchart Sittipunt as Bangkok governor speaks volumes about how much voters crave a “middle path” and an “independent candidate” — which Mr Chadchart, a former transport minister under the previous Yingluck Shinawatra administration, has positioned himself as. That non-partisan stance helped him win a landslide victory.

Some pundits say this has created a stronger desire for similar figures on the level of national politics, with less inter-party conflict, so the country can move on from the Thaksin-Prayut deadlock.

However, that may not be the case. To begin with, it turned out that Bangkok voters weren’t overly concerned about political reconciliation; rather, they supported Mr Chadchart because of his character and workaholic nature.

At the same time, it’s clear that none of the three newly formed parties, namely, the Sang Anakhot Thai Party (SATP) led by Somkid Jatusripitak, the Thai Sang Thai Party (TST) overseen by Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, and the Kla Party, which was set up by Korn Chatikavanij, can emerge as a big winner in the next election.

All three, with political heavyweights as their leaders, initially believed they could cash in on public despair regarding the current sense of political divisiveness and win much support. They aimed to pocket 20-30 seats in parliament. But now they have to resign themselves to the sad fact that this is not possible. At most, they could bag five to 20 seats, given opinion polls showing the Pheu Thai Party has a high chance of scoring a huge victory, possibly sweeping up half of the seats at the House of Representatives. Trailing it are the Bhumjaithai Party, the Move Forward Party, the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and the Democrat Party.

As the pollsters found out, none of the three alternative parties look able to secure 25 seats, which is the minimum requirement for a party to submit a prime ministerial candidate to the House.

It should be noted that a number of politicians were eager to form parties last year given the old election rules, which enabled any party that gains 70,000 votes to have one MP. Moreover, if the last election is any example, smaller parties could easily make gains and become part of a coalition.

But this enthusiasm eventually faded following the charter amendment that, through the so-called “100 formula”, apparently favours middle-to-large parties like the PPRP, Democrats and Pheu Thai. All parties of this size have welcomed the formula since it will give them a greater chance of success.

Even though the electoral system bill is still being considered by the charter court, it’s almost certain the rules will benefit the big parties, while the smaller ones may not last.

Well aware of this, the new parties are being forced to adjust and consider merging. Kla which was formed by Mr Korn, was the first to close ranks with Chartpattana, led by Suwat Liptapanlop.

Mr Somkid’s SATP and Khunying Sudarat’s TST look set to follow suit, or else they will risk securing fewer than 10 list-MP seats each during the next elections. Mr Somkid’s party, which has gained prominence for its economic plans, is short of A-list candidates to woo voters. And while Khunying Sudarat can entice a few big shots to the TST, the revised election rules would be a disadvantage to her party.

Other smaller parties are also struggling. There are reports that Suthep Thaugsuban, ex-leader of the now-defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and co-founder of the Action Coalition for Thailand Party (ACT), is courting Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, whose Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party enjoys solid connections with some key players among the old clique.

In the case of a Somkid-Khunying Sudarat alliance, two strong leaders may not necessarily make a strong party. And both will want to serve as PM candidates.

Meanwhile, street protests, albeit peaceful, and pressure are still seen as among the best ways to effect change, only much faster.

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