Democrat defections: Thailand’s oldest party faces existential crisis as election looms
The coalition Democrat Party has seen several high-profile defections over recent weeks, as politicians prepare for the next general election.
In fact, the phenomenon dubbed “Democrat bleeding” by the media began three years ago when Thailand’s oldest political party suffered a humiliating loss in the March 2019 general election.
More than 20 well-known figures – including political veterans and heavyweights — sought greener pastures, either setting up a new party, defecting to an established coalition or opposition party, or joining a freshly founded one.
The leavers include former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij, former foreign minister Kasit Piromya, former justice minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, former social development, and human security minister Witoon Nambutr, former culture minister Nipit Intarasombat, former university affairs minister Thawil Praisont, former deputy PM Kobsak Sabhavasu, Warong Dechgitvigrom, and Atavit Suwannapakdee.
In 2019, the Democrat Party won only 53 MP seats, one-third of the 159 they gained in the 2011 election. The Democrats’ humiliation was compounded by the failure to win a single seat in Bangkok, where they had dominated in previous polls including four consecutive gubernatorial election victories since 2004. The Democrats also suffered defeat in many provinces in the South – their traditional stronghold.
Now, the party is preparing for the next general election, amid rumors it could take place early next year.
Cause of the ‘bleeding’
Party leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva stepped down to take responsibility for the 2019 electoral thrashing and was replaced by the less charismatic Jurin Laksanawisit.
In the runup to the 2019 national vote, Abhisit had announced that he would not support the return of coup and junta leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister.
However, his stand proved unpopular among many Democrat supporters, who switched their vote to the political party that had nominated Prayut as its PM candidate – Palang Pracharath. This party had been founded just a year earlier to serve as a vehicle for Prayut.
The Democrats were split over whether to help Palang Pracharath form a coalition government by voting for Prayut as PM or act as an “independent opposition party” and spending time reforming the party.
Blame for the mass defections of Democrat politicians has been placed on in-party fighting between supporters and detractors of Prayut, as well as the crisis in Jurin’s leadership.
Critics pinpointed a strategy “misstep”, though some analysts say the Democrats were left with no choice but to support Prayut and remain with his government.
Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, said Jurin was being pragmatic when he decided to join the Prayut-led coalition. After all, his party needed to sustain itself after the disappointing election result.
He added that the Democrat Party was forced to rely on Palang Pracharath’s power base to regain its strength while hoping to win more MP seats at the next election. Opting to join the opposition instead of Prayut’s government may have resulted in an even smaller vote for the Democrats at the next national vote, he said.
The Democrat reformist camp’s hope of expanding its political base among the young generation has apparently died, given the party’s conservative nature, Stithorn said.
“In this situation, it’s too difficult to get young supporters,” he added.
Some newly departed Democrat Party politicians complained they had felt neglected by its current executives.
Democrat veteran Trairong Suwankhiri, who is an adviser to the party leader, said on Saturday that many defectors had confided in him before leaving the party.
“They complained about being made to feel like they were insignificant, and said the party was too narrow-minded and only paid attention to those close to the party leader. Some felt there were others pulling the strings under his leadership,” said Trairong, a former deputy prime minister.
Prai Pattano, a former Hat Yai mayor and ex-Democrat MP for Songkhla, admitted in a political talk show aired on Sunday that he felt ignored by the party’s current leadership.
Chance of a comeback
Back when it commanded more than 150 MP seats, the Democrat Party was seen as the core of the conservative camp opposing the liberal clique led by former PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party and his proxy People Power and Pheu Thai parties, Stithorn said.
The Democrats shriveled in the 2019 election because Prayut’s Palang Pracharath replaced them as the core conservative party, the analyst added.
The Democrats’ upper-middle-class vote shifted to Palang Pracharath thanks to the party’s connections and persuasive powers, he said. The upper-middle class, in turn, helped influence the lower middle class to vote for Palang Pracharath.
The Democrats’ future now depends largely on whether Prayut decides to seek another term as prime minister, said the analyst.
“The Democrat Party should be able to restore its former glory if Prayut decides to leave politics. If so, it could at least reclaim its old supporters, though it won’t get any new ones,” Stithorn said.
Deputy Democrat leader Ongart Klampaiboon, however, sees “good signs” of an early return of support for the party.
Last Saturday, he said that Democrat supporters in Bangkok who voted for “another party” in 2019 had told him that they would back Democrat candidates in the upcoming Bangkok governor and city councilors’ election scheduled for May 22.
“Some apologized for giving their vote to another party and promised to return to the Democrats during the upcoming Bangkok elections,” said Ongart, who oversees the party’s campaigning in the capital.
Of the 30 Bangkok MP seats, 12 are held by Palang Pracharath and nine each by the opposition Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk