EVEN for the most experienced political pundits here, it was a surreal scene from Second Life: Newin Chidchob, the once arch-enemy, embracing Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrat Party, to declare an alliance aimed at toppling Thaksin Shinawatra’s political empire.
If the Abhisit-Newin public cuddle was a shocker, the Thaksin-Newin break-up was even more bizarre, though not totally unexpected.
Not answering the call from the “big boss” was already audacious for Newin. But for him to tell Thaksin, “Boss, it’s all over. Let’s walk our separate ways” was a pure, unpardonable mutiny of unprecedented proportions in Thai politics.
Nobody knows whether Thaksin was spitting blood when this former lieutenant refused to answer his call. But the former premier did try to remind Newin of how he had helped him climb the political ladder.
Publicly, Newin couldn’t afford to sound ungrateful of course. He said in his first public appearance in years: “Personally, I still have great respect for the former prime minister. I still admire his style of administration. But sometimes I have to make decisions that are for the public good, and not for personal gain.…”
And you could almost see tears in his eyes when he added: “We have lost our party, our friends and our boss … It’s a very painful thing to do. But if our loss means the benefit of the people, then I think it’s worth it.”
And if that wasn’t convincing enough, the man dubbed “a cat with nine lives”, told reporters in Abhisit’s presence: “People may think we are here to bargain for Cabinet portfolios. Some may say we are negotiating for deals. But that’s not true. Nothing of that sort. We only want to help the country find a way out of the crisis.”
That statement, however, doesn’t go very well with stories published side by side to the effect that the Friends of Newin group will get the same number of Cabinet seats in the Abhisit government – and that Newin’s father, Chai Chidchob, currently House Speaker, will become the new communications minister.
And just us you were ready to swallow the bait, you heard Newin telling Abhisit, the would-be prime minister: “If you were to dish out Bt100 billion to Isaan [the Northeast], pretty soon the Isaan people would forget Thaksin.”
That could, of course, could be seen as a brilliant strategic piece of advice for someone born and bred and made good in the Northeast. But hadn’t Newin, only a few minutes before that, declared that his personal relations with Thaksin remained unchanged – and that he still had unwavering respect for the former boss?
Why then does Newin offer advice to Thaksin’s staunchest opponent to do things in the Northeast that would make the region “forget” the former premier? If he still had great respect for Thaksin, why would Newin want to suggest ways to neutralise Thaksin’s populist policies that had helped propel him to power in the first place?
The answers to all these intriguing questions can be summed up in one word: “Survival”. Do or die.
Newin’s battle-tested political instinct tells him that no matter how you phrase it, Thaksin’s political future is doomed. The more he looks into all the forces arrayed against his former boss, the more he is convinced that if he continues to tie his own political future to Thaksin, his own survival will be at greater risk.
Newin’s decision to break from Thaksin didn’t start after the Constitution Court ruled two weeks ago to disband the People Power Party. In fact, when Thaksin named Samak Sundaravej his nominee, there emerged the “Gang of Four” who were supposed to be plotting a separate power base from that of Thaksin’s old clique.
Newin was joining with Samak and Surapong Subwonglee, another previous Thaksin close aide, to create their own faction. Thaksin was quick to react, and effectively sidelined Newin from his political inner circle from then on.
That’s when Newin linked up with his ex-rival Suthep Thuaksuban of the Democrat Party to keep his own political base afloat. The public continued to be hoodwinked into thinking that any link-up between the Newin faction and the Democrats was a “mid-summer night’s dream”. In fact, they were only waiting for the right timing. No doubt, mutual suspicion of betrayal remained and the risk of a public opinion backlash for both sides was never far from their pragmatic assessment. But a series of unexpected events, and Thaksin’s blunders, spearheaded by the court’s verdict to disband PPP, converged to push Suthep and Newin into the controversial marriage of convenience.
It’s a perfect storm for all concerned. The political turbulence won’t die down easily. For now, the strange bedfellows will present their friendliest possible faces to the public. Newin needs a port in the storm. Abhisit, no matter how awkward the whole scenario turns out, needs Newin’s 20-odd MPs to make his dream to become the country’s premier come true.
But, contrary to what Newin told Thaksin, it’s not over yet. In fact, with Newin playing the crucial role as the new political kingmaker, political Russian roulette has just begun.