Thailand’s oldest political party is making a bold – and possibly desperate – play for votes ahead of the May 14 general election, promising to back the legalization of sex toys if it is elected to power.
In a statement posted to Facebook this week, Ratchada Thanadirek, a representative of the conservative Democrat Party, said this week that the party is planning to push for legalization “for the safety of users.” She argued that legalizing sex toys would help reduce the rate of sex crimes and the number of products illegally smuggled from overseas, while allowing the government to collect taxes.
“Looking at the medical angle, doctors are even recommending [sex toys], instead of buying a sex service or cheating on partners,” Ratchada said in an interview with CNN.
While they are sold openly in the districts of the Thai demimonde, sex toys are considered “obscene” under Section 287 of Thailand’s Criminal Code. As a result, those who make, publicly distribute, or sell them face punishments of up to three years in prison, a fine of up to 6,000 baht (around $175) or both.
The Democrats are proposing that sex toys should be “a specially controlled product under governmental regulations and with age limitations, where the buyers must be older than 18 years old.”
Established in 1946, the Democrats have a storied history on the conservative side of Thailand’s politics. The party was most recently in power from 2008 until 2011 under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. But its electoral fortunes have sunk in the decade since, declining from 38.65 percent of the popular vote at the 2007 election to 10.92 percent in 2019. The weak return, which saw the party lose support even in its traditional strongholds in the south and the capital Bangkok, prompted Abhisit’s resignation as party leader. The party also performed poorly at last year’s Bangkok gubernatorial election.
The party, now led by Deputy Prime Minister Jurin Laksanawisit, is struggling to stave off what recent opinion polls suggest will be its electoral oblivion. One recent poll put support for the party at just 4.75 percent, while Jurin was the preferred prime minister of just 2.2 percent of respondents.
The Democrats’ pitch offers another interesting indication of the strange alliances that characterize Thai cultural politics in the current era of political flux. Last year, Thailand became one of the first Asian countries to decriminalize the use of cannabis. A policy associated in most countries with the political left, the Thai decriminalization drive was spearheaded instead by the Bhumjaithai party, a member of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s conservative ruling coalition, which in most other senses stands in staunch defense of rigid social hierarchies and the unequal status quo.
Should the Democrats successfully spearhead the legalization of sex toys – it would require the support of 251 members of the lower house of Parliament to do so – they would be an even stranger harbinger of progressive change.
The move could just as easily be interpreted as a desperate Hail Mary from a party that has largely failed to inspire. As The Diplomat’s Tita Sanglee observed last year, the party, lacking a clear policy platform, has “frequently delivered crowd-pleasing statements with a hope of garnering votes right before the elections.” Prior to 2019, this was Abhisit’s declaration that he would not support Prayut, who led the military coup of 2014, as prime minister after the election– an admirable position, to be sure, but one that cost the party dearly in the conservative “yellow” strongholds of Bangkok and the upper south.
The Democrats’ sex toy legalization pitch is only likely to quicken its losses among the party’s traditionally conservative base. Whether or not it can make this up with more liberal converts, given the presence of a genuinely progressive alternative in the form of the Move Forward Party, remains doubtful.