11 July 2024

The “Prinn effect” has left the coalition Democrat Party at one of the lowest ebbs in its 76-year history and its eighth leader, Jurin Laksanawisit, in political hot water. 

Multiple sex-abuse allegations against former deputy Democrat leader Prinn Panitchpakdi, who was handpicked by Jurin for the job, have tainted the party’s hard-earned reputation and credibility but also opened rifts between factions and even in the 36-member executive board.

This latest crisis is yet another headache for Jurin, who took over the party helm from former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in May 2019 after the Democrats’ disappointing performance in the general election. Since then, the new Democrat leader has faced problem after problem.

Mounting pressure 

Democrat campaigning for the May 22 Bangkok governor election has been undermined by the shocking allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Prinn, who headed the campaign team before stepping down as the accusations emerged. So far, 15 women have filed police complaints against him.

Prinn’s resignation as Democrat deputy leader and economy tsar has failed to relieve pressure on the country’s oldest political party, which marked its 76th birthday on April 6. And it is Jurin and his executive leadership that are feeling the heat.

Calls are mounting — both from within and outside the party — for Jurin and other party executives to take responsibility for recruiting Prinn by resigning. Before his appointment in May 2019, Prinn worked in the finance sector.

Meanwhile, some Democrat politicians claim Jurin knew about Prinn’s background before he nominated him for deputy party leader.

Jurin, 66, offered his “deepest apologies” over the controversy and resigned from two government panels on gender equality and women’s policies.

No resignation 

But he refused to step down as party leader, arguing that resigning would be tantamount to abandoning responsibility for the crisis.

Critics also noted that if he quit, Jurin would risk losing his Cabinet posts of deputy prime minister and commerce minister, which would likely be handed to his successor.

At least two political veterans have left the Democrat Party since the scandal broke. Former Democrat deputy leader Witthaya Kaewparadai quit last week and called on Jurin and other executives to take responsibility for the Prinn controversy by stepping down.

Kanok Wongtrangan on Monday resigned as a deputy Democrat leader “out of moral conscience”. Kanok said in a Facebook post that the scandal had undermined public trust in the Democrat leadership’s standard of moral accountability. Jurin’s response so far had failed to meet public expectations, he added.

More headaches 

The Prinn effect has also soured ties between remaining Democrat executives.

Mallika Boonmeetrakul Mahasuk, who is close to Jurin, resigned as a party executive on Monday after calling for a party-wide investigation to find out if any top Democrats were conducting extramarital affairs. Her move came after a fellow female party executive implied that the entire executive board should face an ethics investigation for backing Prinn’s appointment.

On Monday, Onanong Kanchanachusak revealed she had quit the Democrat’s executive board. She said her decision to resign had not been mentioned to the press earlier in the day by government spokesperson Ratchada Dhnadirek and two other female party executives. A press conference was called to announce that none of the seven female party executives would resign.

Observers said this “change of heart” by the group came after much lobbying, pointing out that the press conference started 90 minutes late.

Before the charges against Prinn, Jurin had been hit with a series of resignations by key Democrat figures who left to join other parties or launch new ones. Among them were Korn Chatikavanij and Pirapan Salirathvibhaga – both rivals for Jurin’s post as party leader.

Meanwhile, during a censure debate in February last year, Jurin was accused by the opposition of corruption involving the Public Warehouse Organisation’s 112.5-billion-baht purchase of rubber gloves. He denied the allegation.

Lifelong Democrat 

Born on March 15, 1956, in Phang Nga province, Jurin earned a bachelor’s degree from Thammasat University’s Faculty of Political Science followed by a master’s in Public Administration from the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida).

As a student, he drew political cartoons for newspapers under the penname “Aoodda” and later worked briefly as a reporter.

Jurin was first elected an MP in 1986, representing his home province under the Democrat banner. He has been re-elected 10 times.

His performance as a first-time MP earned him plaudits as a “promising rising star” from journalists on the Parliament beat.

His past Cabinet posts include public health minister, education minister, and Prime Minister’s Office minister.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk