One thing has made a strong comeback in this election season. That is the role of the so-called “Baan Yai” – roughly translated as the “big clans”.
This refers to members of rich and powerful families who dominate politics at the regional and provincial levels. Almost every major province, or group of provinces, has its own reigning political clan and it’s widely known that, together, they form an integral part of the Thai political landscape.
Their role following the military coup in 2014 may have been overshadowed by the higher-level politicking, but now that the familiar political environment is back in full swing, the role of these political clans has become most valuable for parties wanting to make substantial gains in rural constituencies.
That explains why, all of a sudden, members of such political clans as the “Khunpluem”, “Asavahame”, “Chomklin” and “Kanchana”, to mention just a few, are making headlines by either switching camps or reaffirming their current affiliations.
One thing is certain and not unusual, by Thai political standards, about all these moves. That is that any party-jumping or political realignments at this juncture have nothing do with political ideologies. In the words of outgoing House Speaker Chuan Leekpai, they are purely driven by self-interest.
Two high-profile veteran politicians and former members of the Prayut Cabinet, Somsak Thepsuthin and Suriya Juangroongruangkit, had no qualms about crossing the aisle from Palang Pracharath to Pheu Thai, notwithstanding the two parties’ opposing political viewpoints. Somsak was very straightforward when asked about his decision, saying he simply wants to be with a party that stands a chance of being in the government.
Just as everyone thought former defence minister Gen Thammarak Isarangkun na Ayutthaya had been politically banished, the Palang Pracharath Party recently sprang a surprise by bringing him back into the picture.
In 2012, Thammarak, who was also a deputy leader of the now-dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party, was found guilty of poll fraud and sentenced to three years and four months in jail. The verdict was overturned by the Court of Appeals two years later and, since then, he had been keeping a low profile.
Thammarak, 85, is now entrusted with leading the charge into the northeast for Palang Pracharath, which will clash head-on with Pheu Thai which considers the region its most important political base.
Not to be outdone, the United Thai Nation Party (UTN) is also using the services of a former army officer, who is known for his shady past, to take charge of the constituencies in the north. Himalai Phewpan was stripped of his rank of army lieutenant colonel in 2016, after being sentenced to two years in jail for leading a group of men to dismantle a pub on Sukhumvit Road in 2003.
No sooner had he been given the post of “coordinator” by UTN, Himalai had to fend off reporters’ questions about his connection with Chuwit Kamolvisit, a whistle-blower who is going after senior members of Bhumjaithai Party with corruption allegations.
Himalai and Chuwit, who were known as close associates, were charged as cohorts in the same criminal case in 2016. Himalai denied that he recruited Chuwit to smear Bhumjaithai, a rival of UTN which is nominating Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as its prime ministerial candidate. Bhumjaithai, whose leader Anutin Charnvirakul is also gunning to be the next prime minister, is expected to be a key player in the upcoming election and afterwards.
It’s not uncommon for Thai political parties to have in their leadership, or rank and file, people of notoriety. Besides platforms and friendly persuasion, some political parties need some muscle to sway their constituencies in this kind of cut-throat competition.
All these interesting developments aside, the specter of large-scale vote-buying is once again rearing its ugly head. Since it’s clear that all major parties are determined to win at all costs, it should not be a surprise if cash-for-votes becomes the order of the day in highly-contested constituencies.
One thing has changed, though. Canvassers don’t go out handing out cash in broad daylight as they used to. Money transfers have already gone digital.
By Thepchai Yong
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