Hidden reefs, lurking pirates: Democrats in uncharted waters

FRIDAY, MAY 17, 2019

Given the current political climate, there is no guarantee the longest-surviving party can achieve yet another comeback

This past Wednesday might be seen as a normal day for the Democrat Party but quite important for Thai politics. The country’s oldest political party elected a new leader in conventional yet laudable fashion, choosing Jurin Laksanavisit among four outstanding contenders. The Democrats are the only party that installs a leader like that, and even their bitterest rival, Pheu Thai, must be looking on with envy.
The voting process that installed Jurin as Abhisit Vejjajiva’s successor belongs exclusively to the Democrats. Pheu Thai relies on decrees, or at least guidance, from Thaksin Shinawatra. Chart Thai Pattana’s selection of leaders is basically a family affair. In fact, all of the parties except the Democrats are under the control of some individual or dynasty. Outsiders come along once in a while to lead them, but they are nominees at best and puppets at worst.
But the Democrats again this week demonstrated their greatest strength – at a time when they’re at their weakest in most other aspects. Jurin’s election was necessitated by Abhisit’s resignation following a humiliating election defeat in March. The party lost ground to old rival Pheu Thai, new rival Future Forward and the Palang Pracharat Party, which is Abhisit’s rival but might yet assemble a government coalition that includes Jurin and his backers.
In the great scheme of political life, the party has “been here before” on one hand. Hostile public sentiment and the rising popularity of the Palang Dharma Party humbled it in the 1990s. The Democrats bounced back, though, while Palang Dharma faded into extinction. Being punished by voters and wooing them back is a recurring feature of Democrat history.
On the other hand, the current situation is unprecedented. The Democrats have never been so torn between choices of political allies. Jurin is weighing the military on one side and Thaksin on the other. Backing Thaksin’s inheritors would be bitter tasting enough, but supporting Prayut would run counter to much more the Democrats hold dear. Abhisit was deliberately vague about which way he leaned pre-election, and voters looked elsewhere for decisiveness.
The advent of Jurin doesn’t end the dilemma. He will have to bite the bullet now, just as Abhisit would have had to do had he remained party leader. A parliamentary vote to choose the new prime minister is just days away and the Democrats’ decision is required even sooner. That decision could make or break the party. If it fumbles now, the comeback would be extremely difficult. The ideological gulf leaves scant room for the neutrality Abhisit feigned to his great cost.
There are several members of the Democrat Party, notably the youngbloods, who would prefer to spurn both camps and cherish independence in a “constructive” opposition, but that too is a risky proposition. The Democrats are in unfamiliar territory and are struggling to shake off the perception they are “part of the problem”. 
Having represented the alternative choice following the chaos of 1992 and having been unambiguously opposed to Thaksin in the 2000s – drawing the wrath of the reds and all but unable to govern for weeks on end – the party’s helm is again in good hands. The ship is functional, but only just. Jurin will be steering through uncharted waters, though. He’ll need all the luck he can get.