Thailand’s Democrat Party: Gone and Almost Forgotten?

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Thailand’s Democrat Party: Gone and Almost Forgotten?

Formerly a bastion of conservative Thai politics, the rudderless party has been excluded from talks aimed at forming the next government.

Thailand’s Democrat Party: Gone and Almost Forgotten?

Former Democrat leader Jurin Laksanawisit speaks to reporters while campaigning in Bangkok, Thailand, May 13, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Democrat Party, Thailand พรรคประชาธิปัตย์

Much has already been written about the decline of Thailand’s Democrat Party, the country’s oldest political party, founded just after the Second World War and for decades the bastion of Thai conservatism, following its devastating election losses in 2019 and 2023. There seems to be a consensus among observers, myself included, that deep internal divisions, the growing lack of a clear policy platform, and the emergence of strong new competitors have acted as catalysts for the Democrats’ downfall, from the head of the 2008-2011 government to a background character in the military-backed Prayut Chan-o-cha administration. The latest developments in Thailand’s political scene further indicate that the Democrat Party is increasingly finding itself stagnating and being sidelined.

Over the weekend of July 22-23, the bizarre political crossover between Thailand’s two polarizing sides was put on display. The liberal Pheu Thai Party, now in charge of forming a government after its ally Move Forward Party (MFP) failed consecutively to have its leader Pita Limjaroenrat named prime minister, reached out to conservative parties in the Prayut administration to garner more parliamentary support. During the next round of prime minister voting, initially set for July 27 but since postponed until at least next month, Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate – most likely the real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin who, as The Diplomat’s Sebastian Strangio wrote recently, comes across as “business-friendly and relatively palatable to conservatives” – must secure at least 375 votes of support.

One by one, leaders from the conservative wing appeared at Pheu Thai’s headquarters, tasted Pheu Thai’s signature mint-chocolate drink, engaged in discussions with Pheu Thai executives, and held joint press conferences. Conservative parties echoed a similar sentiment: they are open to backing Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate or even joining the Pheu Thai-led coalition, as long as the “extremist” MFP leaves.

At this point, it is not an overstatement to say that the MFP and the conservative faction cannot co-exist. Both sides have practically declared war on each other, with the MFP refusing to soften its reformist policies and the conservatives blatantly trying to isolate the MFP. Pheu Thai therefore must abandon the MFP if it wishes to lead the new government with a seal of approval from the conservative establishment. In other words, Pheu Thai has to think carefully about trading off its core anti-establishment support base to pave the way for the return of its founding father, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in self-exile for 17 years.

While Pheu Thai has not yet severed its alliance with the MFP, most likely due to fears of being seen as a “traitor” by the pro-liberal crowd, last weekend’s affair could be interpreted as an attempt to pressure the MFP to voluntarily leave the coalition.

All key major and minor conservative parties, bar the Democrats, showed up at Pheu Thai’s weekend gathering.

Why, then, was the Democrat Party, which won 25 seats at the May 14 election and appears to be strategically more valuable than Chart Thai Pattana (10 seats) and Chart Pattana Kla (2 seats), not invited? Many would probably point to the longstanding animosity between the Democrats and Pheu Thai. The Democrat Party was, at one point, Pheu Thai’s main rival. Besides, many Democrats were actively involved in the 2013-14 anti-Pheu Thai government protests to oust the then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (and in effect, Thaksin’s power). But this argument hardly makes sense given that the ultraconservative United Thai Nation Party (UTNP) was invited by Pheu Thai. The UTNP is filled with many “hardcore” ex-Democrats, and the party is directly linked to the “coup-maker” Gen. Prayut, who announced his retirement from politics earlier this month.

When asked about the Democrats’ absence, Pheu Thai deputy leader Phumtham Wechayachai said that the Democrat Party currently has no leader or secretary-general. Talks would only be fruitless against the backdrop of this leadership vacuum.

Indeed, the Democrats are battling for control of the party’s agenda. The party was supposed to elect a new leader to replace Jurin Laksanawisit on July 9, but infighting and the lack of a quorum embarrassingly ruined the meeting.

The Democrat Party in its current state could be divided broadly into two camps: the idealist and the pragmatist. The idealist supports the reinstallation of former Democrat leader and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a charismatic figure who has shown to uphold conservative ideals but oppose military rule in politics. Abhisit’s renewed leadership could help the Democrats cultivate a clearer party identity that is very much needed. The pragmatist, in contrast, aims to become a part of any government, conservative or not. This camp, headed by veteran politician Chalermchai Sri-on, appears to have more members on board. Considering the complex nature of Thai politics, pragmatism may be the easiest way to survive.

The next Democrats’ assembly has been postponed to August 6. Any further delay to select the party’s leadership would only drive the already wounded Democrats deeper into the political abyss.