Politically, the party has lost a great option
Surin Pitsuwan may be resting in peace, but the Democrat Party is absolutely not. Facing a general election while being torn between a military regime and their political arch-rivals, the Democrats are very much in the process of soul-searching. Whatever transpires between now and the next election, having Surin in their ranks would have served them much better.
Over the past few years, Surin was always tipped as the next Democrat leader, along with Supachai Panitchpakdi, the former chief of the UN Conference on Trade and Development.
The chances of either of them immediately replacing incumbent Abhisit Vejjajiva were no doubt slim, but having their presence in talks on a possible leadership change lent the party a credibility and quality that rival Pheu Thai Party lacked: A structure supportive of genuine high-level transition.
It is safe to say that Surin represented some of the Democrat Party’s healthy features. Thailand’s oldest political camp has never been dominated by any individual or clan. This has enabled the party to be taken over by different men from different backgrounds, in arguably the most democratic manner compared to other Thai political parties. The likes of Abhisit, Chuan Leekpai, Banyat Bantadtan took turns at the helm and not once was their leadership a “fake” one, and Surin could have joined that list.
Party branches have played truly significant roles in determining changes at the top.
Surin was a respected figure, widely known here and abroad – particularly in Southeast Asia – and in a good way. He contributed to the solidity of the party’s Muslim power base. The fact that his regional duties kept him away during the ugly political divide, meant he had the credentials to serve as a “compromising” political figure during that uncertain time.
Now, the Democrats will have to navigate the lingering political turmoil without him. Despite it being a “belonging” of Thaksin Shinawatra, Pheu Thai has maintained the loyalty of voters in Thailand’s biggest region, the Northeast, and remains very much in control of the North. Pheu Thai’s positive characteristic is that it delivers on bold policies, designed for the underprivileged sections of the population.
A possible role touted for Surin before his sudden, unexpected passing was as a Bangkok gubernatorial candidate. Again, he would have been a strong contestant in a race that was fierce between the Democrats and Pheu Thai the last time. Bangkok is said to be an important political arena, which the Democrats have kept losing and reconquering. Certainly, the Democrats would have been better off with Surin as a gubernatorial candidate option.
Surin’s political stature has been generally accepted, even among the most ardent critics of the Democrat Party.
Aside from being the secretary-general of Asean, he was seriously mentioned for the United Nations’ top job, thanks to his unique exposure to foreign policies at the broadest and highest levels.
He used to serve as Thailand’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister not because of nepotism, as was the case with several high-ranking Cabinet members, but because of his attributes.
He will be missed by many Thais, on both sides of the national divide. But, in the political context, it is obvious who will miss him the most. The Democrats, like others, are at the crossroads as the country looks to shake off the dark political shadow of the past several years, and they have lost a great option. The party will move on, but the full political impact of losing Surin probably has not been felt in its entirety yet.