11 July 2024

Democrat Party’s successes include winning a House majority, sweeping all MP seats in Bangkok, and leading several coalition governments. But the party – established on April 6, 1946 – has also experienced dark days, including a military coup that ousted its government, two election wipe-outs in the capital, and severe infighting that has led to mass defections of key figures.

During a history spanning nine decades, the Democrats have experienced two serious rifts in which “internal bleeding” threatened the party’s existence. Observers say the latest division, coming at a time when the Democrats’ popularity with voters has crashed to a new low, could make or break the party.

Birth of ‘January 10 Group’

The first destructive split occurred in January 1987 after the general meeting to select a new Democrat leader, secretary-general and other executive posts. A faction led by incumbent secretary-general Veera Musikapong nominated his predecessor in the post, Chalermphan Srivikorn, as candidate for new party leader.

A rival faction led by Chuan Leekpai nominated incumbent leader Bhichai Rattakul for another term. Veera meanwhile sought re-election as secretary-general, competing against Sanan Kachornprasart from the rival faction.

But both Chalermphan and Veera failed in their bids, triggering a tectonic shift in the party.

The disappointed pair joined 38 other dissident Democrat MPs in their faction to form a new political outfit dubbed the “Group of January 10”, named for the date of the fateful party meeting.

Group of January 10 politicians had earlier accused incumbent leader Bhichai of nepotism after his son Bhichit was appointed the party’s deputy science minister. The resentment only grew after Bhichai’s time as Democrat chief was extended.

In April 1988, MPs from the dissident group helped vote down an important bill backed by General Prem Tinsulanonda’s coalition government, in which the Democrat Party was a partner.

The failure effectively brought down the government, as Prem dissolved the House for a fresh election. Group of January 10 MPs soon quit the party along with the Democrats’ Wadah Group of Muslim MPs from the deep South, who also voted against the bill.

The dissidents then set up their own party, called “Prachachon” (“People”), with Chalermphan as leader and Veera becoming secretary-general.

The new party contested the general election in July 1988 and won 19 seats. The Democrats, meanwhile, suffered a major setback as their share of MP seats was reduced from 99 to 48.

However, Prachachon lasted less than a year before being dissolved in January 1989 as it merged into a new political party called Solidarity.

Mass defections and new crisis

The second serious division in the Democrat Party emerged last year, as national politicians were busy preparing for a general election.

Under the tenure of its eighth party chief, Jurin Laksanawisit, the party began hemorrhaging political veterans. The deserters included such heavyweights as Korn Chatikavanij, Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, Trairong Suwankiri, Thavorn Senniam, Thawil Praisont, Vittaya Kaewparadai, Nipit Intharasombat, and Kobsak Sabhavasu.

Analysts viewed their defections as a factor in the Democrat Party’s poor performance at the May 14 election, when it won just 25 MP seats, down from 52 in the 2019 national vote.

The party also failed to win a single seat for the second election running in its old stronghold of Bangkok, prompting some observers to predict it was on the brink of political extinction.

Democrat leader Jurin and secretary-general Chalermchai Srion stepped down to take responsibility for the disappointing result.

Worse still, the mission to find a new party leader has sparked fresh infighting among the Democrats.

Those seeking the return of former party chief and ex-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva are battling with Chalermchai’s faction, which has earmarked the less charismatic acting deputy leader, Narapat Kaeothong, for the top job.

Two party meetings to elect a new leader and executives, in July and August, both failed to reach a quorum after a boycott by Abhisit’s supporters.

Their stay-away blocked the rival group from securing the party leadership.

The next party meeting and third bid to select a new Democrat leader and executives is due on December 9.

This time around, forming a quorum should not be a problem after the party’s caretaker executive board – dominated by MPs from Chalermchai’s faction – resolved at their recent meeting to add 150 “reserve voters” who can step in if existing voters are absent.

Thai PBS World’s Political Desk