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Paetongtarn must avoid past trends

It came as no surprise that Paetongtarn Shinawatra, former prime minister Thaksin's youngest daughter, was overwhelmingly voted as the new leader of the Pheu Thai Party on Friday.

The election by party executives, MPs and some party members was, after all, just a ceremonial procedure to give an impression of the party’s adherence to democracy. The outcome was pre-determined.

Anyone who is familiar with Thai politics — not necessarily political experts — will know that the Pheu Thai Party is owned by the Shinawatra family, particularly the family’s patriarch, Thaksin.

So when the owner feels that his daughter is mature enough and it’s about time for her to take the helm of the party after being groomed by her handlers for quite some time, how can the other party members say no.

Praise after praise of her qualifications and suitability were heaped upon her by party heavyweights from former party leader Dr Cholnan Srikaew down to the rank and file. Some even suggested she is now qualified to become the prime minister.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an exiled anti-monarchy lecturer at Japan’s Kyoto University, thought otherwise, describing her ascent to the party leadership as “dynastic politics”. He is right on the spot.

Sorawong Thienthong, son of long-time party veteran, Sanoh, was also voted as the party’s new secretary-general, another case of a dynastic politics at work.

In her speech to party members after her election as the party leader, Ms Paetongtarn said Thaksin is her inspiration and vowed to lead the Pheu Thai Party to its previous glorious days of being the No 1 party.

She said the party must learn from the lesson of its May 14 shocking election defeat, develop itself and change its way of thinking.

In her speech, she also borrowed from Thaksin’s quote in his biography, quoting “Eyes on the stars, feet on the ground”.

Undoubtedly, Ms Paetongtarn is a better choice than the old guard in the party. She is youthful, charming, sophisticated and brims with energy.

For the party, she is an equal match for Pita Limjaroenrat, former leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP) who is also young, energetic, eloquent and smart. But for some, it is doubtful she is an equal match for Mr Pita.

The major shortcoming of Ms Paetongtarn is that she is perceived as a proxy of Thaksin. According to some critics, the respect or submission shown to her, particularly by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who graciously bowed and kissed her hand after her election as party leader, screams volumes of who she represents. Thaksin’s proxy, or another clone, as Thaksin once described his sister, Yingluck?

But then which leaders of Pheu Thai Party or its predecessor, Palang Prachachon, are not perceived as proxies of Thaksin, from the late Samak Sundaravej, Suchart Thadathamrongvej, Yongyuth Vichaidit, Charupong Ruangsuwan, Pol Lt-Gen Wiroj Pao-in, Sompong Amornvivat to Dr Cholnan, who resigned to accept responsibility for the party’s defeat to the MFP in the May 14 election?

Despite such perception, the party lost the election to the Move Forward Party. Hence, it can be presumed that the “Thaksin factor” has lost its magic among quite a few voters, especially the young voters who don’t care any more for Thaksin after his long exile from home.

These young voters yearned for something new, something bold and for changes, good or bad.

And Move Forward stood out among all the parties contesting the election by presenting voters with unorthodox policies that others dare not talk about, such as military reform instead of police reform, abrogation of conscription, the “switching off” of the three “Por” brothers (Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and Gen Anupong “Pok” Paochinda) and dissolution of the Internal Security Operations Command. It appears the party subscribes to the motto of the British SAS special forces of “Who dares wins”.

Although led by a new “young blood” leader, the Pheu Thai Party is weighed down by many “old guard” politicians, including Thaksin, who are themselves part of the old establishment and appear to have lost touch with young voters. Radical changes appear to be beyond their imagination.

First things first. Ms Paetongtarn may have to define her role in the party and set the priorities. Does she aim to replace Mr Srettha in the short term, with some flatterers suggesting she is now fit for the top executive job?

Or does she want to rebuild and rebrand the party so it can reclaim the No 1 political spot from the Move Forward Party?

The two jobs are different, they do not mix and require full attention. This means that Ms Paetongtarn must choose either of them, bearing in mind that the Move Forward Party won 6 million more votes than the Pheu Thai Party in the last election.

That margin could be much higher at the next election four years from now as more young people will be eligible to vote if nothing is done now to rebuild, rebrand, revigorate or whatever to restore public confidence in the party, particularly among the young people.

At the age of 36, Ms Paetongtarn does not need to rush to take the baton from Prime Minister Srettha, now or in the foreseeable future.

She does not need to go down in history as Thailand’s youngest prime minister after her aunt, Yingluck, became the first Thai woman to do so at 44 years old in 2011.

Yingluck was a reluctant prime minister whom Thaksin once described as his clone. Given Yingluck’s performance during her two-plus years in her premiership, Ms Paetongtarn should not want to emulate that.

She must prove to the public that she can stand on her own two feet and has the real leadership qualities to inspire confidence and hope among the people.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

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