By JINTANA PANYAARVUDH
THE leadership race for the country’s oldest political party is fierce, with the two leading candidates – Abhisit Vejjajiva and Warong Dechgitvigrom – seemingly neck-and-neck as next month’s vote approaches, a top party figure said.
“The race is very close. I cannot predict who will win,” the source, who asked not to be named, told The Nation.
The Democrats will hold a primary vote on November 1-5, the first time ever that a Thai party has selected its leader with input from its members.
Many political observers believe incumbent leader Abhisit will easily win the contest against his main challenger, Warong. They point to Abhisit’s popularity and political experience. The third contender, former deputy leader Alongkorn Ponlaboot, is generally viewed as the weakest candidate.
But the confident prediction looks shaky when you take a closer look at the eligible voters.
Previously, around 250 party MPs and party branch chairmen were eligible to vote for the leader, making it not difficult to control the votes. Abhisit would have a strong chance being re-elected leader under this old voting system.
But under the primary vote, the number of eligible voters could reach up to 100,000 Democrat members nationwide, making it difficult to control the outcome.
“Most of those members belong to Warong’s camp. So, using a primary vote for party leader selection is risky for Abhisit,” the source said.
It is widely known that Warong is the nominee of former party secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban. Suthep has failed to convince Abhisit and other Democrat party executives to declare support for coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha becoming prime minister.
Abhisit announced at the party’s 72nd anniversary celebrations that he would implement the primary vote for the next party leader. Suthep and his camp of former members of the now defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee [PDRC] who remained in the Democrat fold pounced on the opportunity to recruit Democrat voters. Among the camp was Thaworn Senneam, deputy leader and a former Songkhla MP, who quickly moved to ensure party members confirmed their membership status in April, said the source.
Political parties were allowed to approach existing members to confirm their membership status from April 1-30.
“The number of confirmed [members] is obviously high in some southern provinces,” the source said.
For example, some 15,000 members confirmed their status in each of Songkhla and Nakhon Si Thammarat provinces, along with 10,000 in Chumporn. All are political bases of the former PDRC members, he added.
“Let’s say around 50 per cent of the total 81,000 eligible voters are members recruited from Warong-backed camp. That would weaken Abhisit’s prospects,” he said.
“This primary vote is not about popularity but a game of numbers. Whoever wins the most votes will be the winner,” he added.
So, crucial to the outcome will be whichever side recruits the greatest number of new members to apply for the right to vote within today’s deadline.
Although 2.5 million previous Democrat members who have failed to confirm their membership can still apply, the source said it was difficult to reconnect with them.
However, another party source said Abhisit retains an advantage since he is backed by respected party chief adviser Chuan Leekpai who still enjoys influence in the party, especially over former MPs in the South.
Moreover, the timing is not right for change, said the source.
The next election will be held within five months, which is not enough for a new leader prepare to lead the election campaign, he added.
“Changing horses in midstream is not good for the party, let alone the gap in experience and fame between Abhisit and Warong. Can Warong lead the party to win [the next election]?” the source asked sceptically.
Suthep’s power play
Former protest leader Suthep has been plotting to seize control of his old party for the past year, in the hope of gaining Democrat backing for Prayut.
“Suthep has been lobbying us since last year to publicly declare support for Prayut [as next PM] before the election. He told me that in doing so we would be joining forces to fight against Thaksin’s camp,” a Democrat key man said.
“[But] how can we announce that support while we have our candidate in the prime minister list? If we do that [announce support for Prayut] we don’t need to campaign for the election at all,” he added.
Suthep’s own right-leaning Action Coalition for Thailand (ACT) party won’t get enough votes to secure Prayut as next premier, so he needs the backing of the Democrat Party, which is likely to win the second largest number of seats in the lower house.
Likely to form the core of the next government is either Pheu Thai or the pro-regime Palang Pracharat Party – but they will need the Democrats as coalition partners.
With a controllable party leader in place, Suthep would certainly have the Democrats ally with pro-Prayut factions in Parliament. Which explains why he has backed Warong as challenger to Abhisit.
However, the outcome of the leadership election might not matter when it comes to backing Prayut for premier, experts say.
Whether Abhisit or Warong wins, there is a high probability that the Democrats will collaborate with pro-junta parties to form the next government and support Prayut as prime minister, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.
“The Democrats have indirect relations with the military through Suthep’s ACT party. They are good friends,” Titipol said.
Stithorn Thananithichot, a political scientist at King Prajadhipok's Institute, believes that the new Democrat leader, no matter who that is, would vote for Prayut if his name appears on the list of prime ministerial candidates of any political party.
All three leadership candidates have made clear that they won’t ally with Pheu Thai, seen as a proxy of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the academic said.
However, the Democrats would not support Prayut as an “outsider” PM, voted in by 500 MPs and 250 senators if the lower house fails to agree on its own prime minister, Stithorn said.
In that case, the Democrats would hold an advantage for not allying with Suthep’s ACT or Palang Pracharat before the election, he said.
“They [the Democrats] hope to come second [behind Pheu Thai]. In that scenario, the ACT or Palang Pracharat would have to vote for a Democrat leader to become the next PM,” Stithorn predicted.
Titipol added that a change of Democrat leadership would not make a significant change to the party or its strategy or agenda.
“It would just be to portray an image [if the leader changed] but the old way of thinking remains the same – they don’t truly support democracy,” he said.
The public doesn’t trust the Democrats when they say they won’t back the military regime to retain power after the next election, the academic said.
“In the end, they would rather protect their party’s interest than the country’s interest,” said Titipol.