Thailand’s main opposition Democrat Party said Saturday that it would boycott February’s general election, deepening a weeks long political crisis over protesters’ efforts to oust the government and force political reforms.
The party’s leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, announced the boycott after a meeting of party executives, saying the decision was made in order to ensure that Thailand’s government will “represent the people once again.”
Abhisit said he had “to accept the truth that the people believe that even if the Democrat Party runs in this election, they believe they will be not be able to reform the country.”
“We are choosing the harder path, making the long-term decision to represent the people once again,” he said.
The Democrat Party has not won a national election since 1992, while Thaksin and his allies have won each one held since 2001.
The protest movement, led by a former senior member of the Democrat Party, Suthep Thaugsuban, demands that the Feb. 2 polls not be held if Yingluck stays on as caretaker prime minister. Abhisit, however, distanced his party from the position of the so-called People’s Democratic Reform Committee, saying the Democrats respected the concept of elections.
Promphong Nopparit, a spokesman for Yingluck’s ruling Pheu Thai Party, said that the Democrats’ action was not unexpected, and that it was taken because they knew they would lose.
“It is a political game,” Promphong said. “In the end, they have the same objective, which is to overthrow Yingluck’s government and overthrow the democratic system.”
The protesters say Thai politics are hopelessly corrupt under Thaksin’s continuing influence, and that he buys his electoral support from the country’s urban and rural poor. They believe that traditional one-man, one-vote democracy doesn’t work because the poor are not educated enough to choose responsible leaders.
Thaksin’s supporters say he is disliked by Bangkok’s elite because he has shifted power away from the traditional ruling class.
The protests, which started Oct. 31, have drawn crowds as large as 150,000-200,000 people. Demonstrators have forced their way into government compounds, temporarily occupying several of them. The government has been relatively restrained in response, and Yingluck dissolved the lower house of Parliament earlier this month to try to end the crisis.
Protest leaders have called for another major rally and march on Sunday. They have also hinted they might try to disrupt the registration of election candidates, which begins Monday.
Jonathan Head’s analysis for the BBC:
For the second time in a decade, Thailand’s oldest political party is boycotting an election.
The Democrat Party’s many critics accuse it of turning its back on democracy because it cannot win elections. It has lost the last five to parties led or funded by Thaksin Shinawatra.
This was a tough decision for the Democrats. For days the party was split over which way to go.
Many of its supporters and MPs have thrown their weight behind the street protest movement, led by ex-Democrat powerbroker Suthep Thaugsuban. They argued there was no point in competing in an electoral system where Mr Thaksin has built up such a loyal following among voters in the north and north-east.
But there are those in the party who see just as much risk in a boycott; a risk not only to their reputation – one government minister has already accused them of preparing the ground for a military coup, which happened after their last boycott in 2006 – but also to their very existence.
If the election goes ahead as scheduled on 2 February, the Democrat constituencies will eventually be occupied by other parties, with all the power and influence that goes with that, and the Democrats could fall apart.
But then, after so many defeats, there are some in the party who believe an entirely fresh start might actually be good for it.
BP: Although, in the end, the Democrats say the decision was unanimous. On the dilemma faced by the Democrats, see Saksith’s post. The only thing that BP would add is that the rhetoric of the rallies was going to make it difficult for the Democrats to participate. To participate, and for many protesters to boycott, would result in the Democrats losing ground. However, based on the AP story above, Abhisit has distanced the party from the “People’s Assembly” although has also not provided details on how the reform would take place and what exactly needs to be reformed for the election to take place…
Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party, which is Thailand’s oldest political party and has its power base in the country’s old moneyed elite, said that politics was at a “failed stage” and that the elections would be the “same old power grab” by the governing party and its allies.
“The election on Feb. 2 is not the solution for the country,” Mr. Abhisit, a former prime minister, said after meeting with party leaders on Saturday. “It will not lead to reform.”
The Democrat Party and the protesters are deeply frustrated by the electoral power and influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon who founded the country’s most successful political movement and whose sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is prime minister. They accuse Mr. Thaksin of subverting democracy through corruption and populist policies.
The government counters that the opposition is afraid of elections because it will lose, an electoral calculation supported by many scholars who say the ruling Pheu Thai Party has created a strong base with its policies.
The protesters, including many present and former members of the Democrat Party, have said the power of their movement should be judged by the large number of protesters on the streets. Government supporters have scoffed at this logic, saying popularity should be judged in the voting booth.
“If you really have such huge numbers of people,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of a political faction that supports the government, “why are you opposing the election?”
BP: Because so far, the Democrats have a strong minority, but are quite some distance from winning a plurality let alone a majority of seats…
On Saturday she accepted reforms needed to be made, but only after the election.
“The government realizes that the country needs to be reformed. However, the reforms should run in line with democratic principles,” Yingluck said in a televised address.
She floated the idea of forming a “country reforming council” after the election comprised of multiple stakeholders to provide ideas on how to implement changes acceptable to all sides. It is unlikely to appease her opponents.
The Democrats previously boycotted elections in 2006, helping to create the political uncertainty which heralded a military coup that ousted Thaksin.
The latest boycott could lead to a similar situation, with polls “nullified” on technical grounds, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat and associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan’s Kyoto University.
“Walking away from it, it’s just bad on the part of the Democrat Party. Especially if (the) international community is now watching the Thai situation so closely,” he said in comments ahead of the meeting.
“A boycott accentuates the crisis; it potentially brings to a flashpoint what has been described as a slow-burn civil war,” said Michael Connors, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. “It is an open declaration of war, for it is essentially saying that we, the Democrat Party, and others will engineer a system that excludes you,” he said, referring to supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother of current Premier Yingluck Shinawatra.
“A boycott will bring fully to the movement the Democrat party machine,” Connors said. “Having already won a government dissolution, this will only embolden the movement and lead to attempts to set up parallel government structures with defecting civil servants. Violence can be expected.”
Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist from the northeastern university of Ubon Ratchathani, says a boycott could damage the Democrat Party’s reputation and hopes of gaining votes in the northern regions, a known stronghold of Yingluck’s governing Pheu Thai Party.
“They must remember that Thailand is not just Bangkok and the south, and if they want to win they have to look out to the rest of the country – this is very important – [for] how to gain support, how to motivate people to vote for the party. It’s very important,” said Titipol. “When they are not taking part [voting], they destroy both the domestic and international reputation of the party in the long term.”
Other analysts contend a snap election is unlikely to end to Thailand’s present political conflict. They feel the government’s present course could exacerbate tensions and further destabilize Thai politics.
BP: It was only 5 years ago that Abhisit argued that democracy in Thailand had been making progress, but now the Democrats have resorted back to 2006.
BP is still slightly surprised that Abhisit didn’t impose conditions on when the Democrats will participate and if Abhisit has distanced himself from the People’s Assembly, he also needs an alternative reform plan as well.
Now, we have to wait to see the numbers today and whether it will beat November 24 and December 9 rallies and then what the Democrats and PDRC do on Monday. The signs don’t look good with Sunai of HRW tweeting:
On Monday (23 Dec) Suthep will lead protesters to Thai-Japanese Stadium, where Election Commission registers election candidates.
— Sunai (@sunaibkk) December 21, 2013
BP: Things are likely to get much worse before they get better. BP is very pessimistic as both sides are so far apart now….