SPECIAL REPORT: Dawn of the new Democrats?
At 72 years of existence and repeated election losses, Thailand’s oldest political party is facing the biggest challenge in its history trying to rebrand itself ahead of the national election
ON A RAINY morning last week, a handful of supporters came to the Democrat Party’s headquarters to confirm their membership, a requirement under the new Political Parties Act.
The country’s oldest political party weathered thousands of heavy downpours and dozens of rainy seasons before celebrating its 72nd anniversary on April 6. Its headquarters has stood solidly at its current location on Setsiri Road for almost four decades.
During all those years, many historical events – both happy and sorry – have taken place here. Cheers went up all around when the Democrats won an election and became the government. Tears and silence dominated the building after news of election losses.
Over its long history, the party has often been criticised as “bureaucratic”, “conservative” and “only good at talking”.
And now the Democrats aim to rebrand with a “fresh” selling point in an attempt to win the hearts of voters before the next election.
Trying hard to get rid of those criticisms, party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva marked the party’s 72nd anniversary celebrations with an announcement of a “new era” by highlighting liberal democracy as its core value and distancing the party from the junta, which is looking to stay longer in power.
Abhisit said recently that liberal democracy has been the party’s main ideology since its inception and, that is why it had been accepted into the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats – a regional alliance that Abhisit chairs.
The Democrats admit that the criticisms result from a “historical burden” – some past mistakes they could not correct.
Democrat deputy leader Ongart Klampaiboon said that after 72 years of existence, the party needed to review itself because Thai society and the world have changed dynamically.
“We need to identify who we are and we have chosen to embrace liberal democracy to move society forward,” Ongart told The Nation in a recent interview.
However, observers doubt whether this new selling point of liberal democracy will turn into actual votes at the ballot box.
“It is just ‘political discourse’ created by the Democrats – something they are good at,” said Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
“Such a political style may not be able to attract voters, because they look beyond the election to what is more relevant to their daily lives,” he added.
To be liberal democrats, they need to talk about human rights or gender equality, but the Democrats have never been able to respond to such issues, the academic noted.
The party has failed to win any general election since 1992. Critics say the Democrats’ political style and structure are major hurdles for it to become a true choice for everyone.
As a long-established party, it is well known for its one-dimensional politics, using rhetoric in Parliament and localism, especially in the South, Yuttaporn said.
Moreover, decision-making has often been dominated by the party’s key politicians from the South, which is its major stronghold, Yuttaporn said.
Key party figures from other regions, – even Abhisit, whose political base is in Bangkok – need to depend on the help of “symbols of the South” such as chief party adviser Chuan Leekpai, or former secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban.
While highlighting liberal democracy, the party has kept its stance against dictatorship, Ongart said. And that is one of the Democrats’ weak points.
Whenever they spoke out loud against dictatorship, as Abhisit did firmly in his speech on the party’s anniversary recently, it always came back to haunt them. This is because, in the eyes of many critics, what the party has said and what it has done have been totally opposite.
Former Democrat deputy leader Alongkorn Ponlaboot said it’s normal for politicians to show that they are democratic as an election draws near.
But for Abhisit, this may be difficult, because some of his own and his party’s stances in the past have raised doubts among the public and critics, Alongkorn added.
Yuttaporn made the same point. He said the party could not avoid the fact that some of its members, including the leader, had joined the protests in 2013 held by the People’s Democratic Reform Council (PDRC) under Suthep Thaugsuban’s leadership. These protests paved the way for the coup staged by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was then the Army chief, to oust the elected Pheu Thai-led government.
Moreover, many of their members resigned from the party at that time to join the PDRC in an attempt to distinguish their roles, but now they had returned to the Democrats.
As a huge challenge lies ahead, Yuttaporn suggested that the Democrats restructure to be more responsive to new political dimensions, adding more new and younger members, and conducting a new party line.
“The most important thing is not to play attacking politics [against rivals] and not to be too conservative, but to look forward – and this will enable more people to easily get access to the party,” he said.
Alongkorn, who left the party almost four years ago, suggested that Abhisit focus on new themes to communicate with the public. For example, rather than talking about his opposition to dictatorship, which was an old theme, he should talk about how to reform the economy with new technology or how to use blockchain technology or digital trading to elevate the public sector and people’s quality of life.
“Abhisit is smart and well aware of the modern world. He needs to cross over the past and old politics and create a new mindset, then he will be able to move a step forward to become an alternative choice,” he said.
In Alongkorn’s view, whether Abhisit will continue his leadership position, the party’s stance towards democracy and the relationship between the party and Prayut government will all have an impact on the election result.
Observers want to know whether the Democrats, who have very little chance of winning the next election outright, would support Prayut to become the next prime minister or join hands with the Pheu Thai Party to fight against any attempt to prolong the junta’s power after the election.
Burden of history
In defending his party, Ongart argued: “It’s not unusual that the Democrats are criticised about their ‘democrat-ness’. It is not a ‘stigma’. We can explain it.
“Those [criticisms] are just ‘political discourse’ that we cannot avoid in a democratic society. And we cannot change people’s attitudes or beliefs within a short period of time.”
The existing parties are facing more difficulties than new parties because the former have “the burden of history” while the latter have none, he said.
Under the new era, the party also joined the trend of promoting fresh and young blood as new hopes for Thai politics in order to attract the youth vote. The new era of the party will see a mix of experienced politicians and enthusiastic young people who could help sustain the Democrats, Ongart added. “In fact, we do not ignore the young bloods. We have introduced many of them to work in the party,” he said. He cited the examples of Abhisit, who joined the party at the 1992 election, and Akanat Promphan, stepson of Suthep, who ran as an MP candidate in the 2011 election.
But critics say these new members may be moulded by veteran party members who will stick to the old-fashioned political perspective.
“Abhisit used to be the new hope when he was first introduced by the party in 1992 as a candidate for MP in Bangkok, but he could not do much [to improve the party],” Yuttaporn said.
The analyst was not even certain that a new blood like Abhisit’s young nephew Parit Wacharasindhu, who recently sold his idea of promoting liberal democracy as a cure for what ails the country, would be able to bring change to the party.