What Thailand’s Democrats Must Decide

I have finals coming up and so I don’t have much time to write, but given that the Democrats will soon be electing a new party leader, I wanted to offer a few thoughts.

That the Democrats performed catastrophically in the most recent election is a well known point. The extent of the electoral collapse in outlined well in this post at Thai Data Points:

If the current unofficial election results stand, the Democrat Party will be the fourth largest party with 3,947,726 votes and 55 seats in total (33 constituency and 22 party list seats). This represents a very modest share of just over 11 per cent of the total popular vote. Compared to the 2011 elections results, when Democrats secured 35 per cent of the popular vote and a total of 159 seats (115 constituency and 44 party list seats), this indicates a significant drop in the party’s popularity.

Democrats lost support across all of Thailand’s four regions including its traditional strongholds. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was the complete loss of Bangkok. In the 2011 elections, the Democrat Party won 23 out of 33 constituency seats with Pheu Thai securing the remaining 10 seats. In the 2019 elections, the Democrat Party did not win a single constituency seat in Bangkok.

Petra Desatova, Thai Data Points

As is correct after such an electoral shellacking, the Democrats are now engaged in some deep soul-searching. Some members publicly regret their former party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva’s stance that he would refuse to support Prayut’s return as prime minister. Although their temporary leader, Jurin Laksanawisit, has essentially placed a gag order on future speculation about which coalition the party might join, this has not stopped hearsay about the Democrats negotiating with Palang Pracharath on joining a Prayut-led coalition.

On the other hand, other members have publicly come out against joining a coalition with Palang Pracharath. One such outspoken member has been Parit Wacharasindhu, Abhisit’s nephew, who argued that the Democrats should become part of an ‘independent opposition’:

I call on the next party leader to pledge not to join a coalition, and instead to become an “independent opposition party”…

Our highest goal is not to acquire titles, but to create change that aligns with our party ideology…we must not abandon our beliefs in liberal democracy and a clean political system. Even if we do not take ideology into consideration, I call on everyone to remember that the party slogan is “Honesty will never die”…since 3.9 million people voted for a party that pledged not to support the continuation in power of the regime, or to support corruption, then we need to hear from all our supporters through a primary vote on what they want to do next.

Parit Wacharasindhu

It is my opinion that Parit’s option is best for the Democrats. Explicitly, this means not joining a coalition with Palang Pracharath. I will outline a couple of reasons for why I believe so:

1. The Democrats must honor their pledge to their voters. As Parit stated, Abhisit did indeed pledge that he would not support Prayut’s return as prime minister. It is true that Abhisit is no longer the party leader, but the millions of voters that supported the Democrats did so with the understanding that they were not voting for Prayut. Those who truly wanted to support Prayut would have voted for PPRP (as indeed many former Democrat supporters did). For the Democrats to now turn their backs on their supporters who may genuinely not have wanted Prayut would be to betray their own dwindling party base.

2. Joining the PPRP coalition will lead to the Democrats being swallowed whole. Indeed, if the Democrats were to join the PPRP’s coalition, they would be offered lucrative ministries and positions. But these short-term gains outweigh any long term benefits. In government, the Democrats will be unable to distinguish themselves from their PPRP counterparts and this may very well cement their status as a Bhumjaithai style regional medium-sized party.

3. The Democrats should forego short-term gain for a long-term prize: younger voters. For the Democrats to side with PPRP, they would be choosing a road towards future electoral irrelevance. As younger voters become an increasingly large share of the electorate, the Democrats would do well to realize that the military regime is deeply unpopular amongst this demographic. The Future Forward Party’s success is already evidence that a modern, progressive party can feed off youth energy and do well. Given that Abhisit has tried to cultivate a younger generation of politicians (the ‘New Dems’) to win over the youth vote, it would be wise for the Democrats to continue that path. The Democrat Party is Thailand’s oldest political party, and in earlier times were notably pro-democracy in a Thailand that was not always democratic. They were against military dictatorship in 1992, for example, and have won several democratic elections. The more anti-democratic turn has only occurred in the 2000s, given that the Democrats have been unable to win an election since 1992. Having a real democratic ideology and sticking with it will do much to increase the Democrats’ appeal.

The Democrats have their work cut out for them in figuring out a new path that will return them to electoral relevance. That path, however, will hopefully intersect with a return to democratic ideals and the honoring of their pledge in the 2019 election.






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