BANGKOK -- Pro-military political forces in Thailand are stepping up the recruitment of politicians especially from the opposition Pheu Thai Party close to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ahead of a general election that could be held as early as February.
The move is aimed at eating into PTP's electoral stronghold in rural villages in the northeastern and northern parts of Thailand so that the pro-military parties and their allies can win a majority in the lower house of the bicameral parliament. It has already managed to recruit dozens of former members of parliament, according to a local press report.
The general election will be tipped toward the junta if opposition party politicians continue to defect, given that PTP and its rival Democrat Party won 265 and 159 seats respectively, for a total of 85% of all seats, in the lower house in the 2011 election.
Anand Sriphan, a 72-year-old former lawmaker whose electoral base is in the northeastern province of Udon Thani, received a phone call in June from a person wishing to meet him. Anand, who had been elected to parliament twice as a PTP member, recognized the call from a member of the recruitment campaign and refused to meet the caller.
In the previous general election held in 2011, PTP, headed by Thaksin's younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra, won all nine single-seat constituencies in Udon Thani. Anand won more than 70% of the votes.
While the campaign targets politicians in the northeastern and northern parts of the country, the Palang Pracharat Party is considered a "receptacle" for defectors. The PPP is one of several new pro-military parties that support Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to stay in power.
The defection was spearheaded by ex-leaders in the Thaksin camp, such as former Industry Minister Somsak Thepsuthin and former Deputy Prime Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit who played important roles in Thaksin’s regime of 2001 to 2006. They are considered close to Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak who is in charge of the military government's economic policies.
Somkid, a Prayuth supporter, used to be a close aide to Thaksin and was his deputy prime minister. They parted ways after the 2006 military coup that toppled the administration. PTP remains rudderless as both Thaksin and Yingluck live in self-exile to avoid criminal charges, a fact that could have contributed to the defection.
In late June, Suriya and other leaders of the recruitment campaign invited some 50 former lawmakers to join them at a golf club in a Bangkok suburb where Prayuth plays. "Suriya told group members that he was throwing his support behind Gen. Prayuth to return as prime minister," the English-language Bangkok Post said.
Although the ruling junta has banned political activities by political parties and citizens, it has effectively given tacit approval to the campaign to lure former lawmakers to their camp. In its July 5 editorial, the Bangkok Post said that if the regime allowed the group to continue its activities, PTP and Democrat Party also "need to have the same freedom to stage political activities, recruit MPs and meet the electorate."
Anusorn Iamsa-ard, acting deputy spokesperson for PTP, told local media in July that senior military officers repeatedly attempted to poach politicians in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, pledging to give each of them 30 million baht ($922,792). He also said PTP will release recorded conversations if poaching activities continue.
The military government, which has been in power for about four years, has said that it can hold a general election on Feb. 24, 2019, at the earliest. As such, the jostle to win voters is intensifying.
After scoring a landslide victory in the 2001 general election, Thaksin introduced a medical aid system that won huge support from farmers and the rural poor. Under this system, each examination cost just 30 baht. He was also credited with attracting foreign businesses to Thailand and the conclusion of free trade agreements with other countries.
But Thaksin's administration was plagued by corruption, leading to sharp criticism from the military and the traditional ruling elite as well as the urban middle class. Nevertheless, the Thaksin camp continued to win general elections and the government only fell when the traditional elite stood behind the military's 2006 and 2014 coups that toppled Thaksin and Yingluck respectively.
Without these two key leaders, some analysts believe that the junta may force PTP to dissolve. But even if the junta succeeds in pulling PTP out of power in the house in the next general election, it will face difficulties in government due to the lack of policy consensus, said a political expert in Thailand.