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Soul-searching begins for the Democrats

Apr 12. 2019
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By The Nation

Thailand’s oldest political party should be content and active in opposition, seizing issues as it prepares for the future

The Democrat Party, the oldest political party in Thailand, has been left in disarray before. But consider the fate of those who thrashed them in elections gone by.

Palang Dharma, led by Chamlong Srimuang, a former governor of Bangkok, defeated the Democrats soundly in a national election. The Thai Rak Thai and Pheu Thai of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra put them in their place time and again. Yet Palang Dharma and Chamlong are all but forgotten. The Shinawatra siblings fled into foreign exile and others among their prior allies are steering clear of politics or being dogged by legal proceedings. The multiple incarnations of Thai Rak Thai rest in ashes or struggle to compete against royalist military might.

Modern variations of Chart Thai and Chart Pattana enjoy nowhere near the popular support their forebears did. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh’s New Aspiration Party mutters in obscurity. Prachakorn Thai, when it was led by the late Samak Sundaravej, another former Bangkok chieftain, once commanded voter allegiance in the capital, as did Palang Dharma previously and Future Forward now, but it never found the stamina.

Thus, the Democrats’ humiliating defeat on March 24 should not be regarded as the end for them. Political parties come and go, thrive and wither, but the Democrats have endured through thick and thin. They have been accused of siding with the extreme right, as was the case in the downfall of Pridi Banomyong. They have been considered anti-military during Abhisit Vejjajiva’s tenure and opportunistic when they grasped power in the wake of Black May 1992 and the Shinawatra government’s collapse in 2008.

Last month’s election embarrassment ended Abhisit’s reign, but count on him being replaced as party leader by someone, possibly his close friend Korn Chatikavanij, who will be carrying on a tradition that is laudably unique in Thai political culture. Unlike other parties, the Democrats have never been fastened to a dynasty. The Silpa-archa clan controlled one party, the Shinawatras another. Bhumjaithai struggles to shed the influence of the Chidchob family.

The Democrats’ leaders in modern times have come from different backgrounds and no family has had monopolistic control. There is no “Leekpai family” of “Vejjajiva clan” in charge. This is an assurance of democracy holding sway.

But the question looming largest is what must the next leader do to keep the party viable for the long term. As it has just bitterly learned, there is no enduring value in projecting an image as a neutral alternative to all others. Abhisit clung to that strategy, attacking both Pheu Thai and the military in the hope of seizing the electorate’s middle ground. If such a voting bloc even exists, it clearly is nowhere near as large as he believed. Undeterred, supporters of this approach are now saying the party should happily remain in opposition in Parliament regardless of who forms the government, as a watchdog for the public interest that shuns self-serving politics.

On its face, it’s a noble sentiment, but a guarantee of nothing, other than shielding the party from the dangerous risks involved in choosing sides. But the party should assume the opposition role and at the same time begin the long but necessary process of devising a sustainable strategy for the future. History is on the Democrat Party’s side, but it has arrived at a crucial stage in its evolution.

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