Thailand’s opposition Democrat Party is to boycott the February 2 elections, prolonging the current political crisis. But this move will hurt the country’s oldest political party in the long-run, writes Saksith Saiyasombut
When Sukhumband Paribatra was reelected as Governor of Bangkok in March this year he did it with a record number of over 1.25m votes, maintaining the Democrat Party’s stranglehold on Thailand’s capital. However, the rival Pheu Thai Party was able to make ground, especially in the city’s outskirts. In a city of roughly 12 million people, only 5 million are registered in Bangkok, while 4.2 million of them were eligible to vote. That means only about a third decided on the future of the other two-thirds. I commented back then that it was important for the Democrat Party to look beyond the city borders to the rest of the country since the next general election would likely be their “very last chance” to make a nationwide impact at the polls.
On Saturday, they slammed the door on that chance.
With the reportedly “unanimous” decision not to file any MP candidates and effectively boycott the February 2 general election, the Democrat Party of Thailand, somewhat ironically, has turned its back on democratic discourse in Thailand. Instead, it has decided to heed the the vague but shrill calls of the anti-government protesters for “reform before elections” in the form of the appointed “People’s Assembly”, proposed by protest leader and former fellow senior party figure Suthep Thuagsuban and his motley crew of like-minded ultra-conservatives.
Granted, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Democrat Party. It hasn’t won an election in two decades and would be unlikely to sway voters in less than two months. It is also undeniable that Thailand needs political (and social) reform on several fronts and the upcoming election won’t solve all these problems. But by siding with the protesters and endorsing their demands, the Democrats have delivered a slap to the face of not only to the 47m eligible voters, but also the 11.5m people that voted for them in the last general elections 2011.
While Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party won that election easily, there were surely still a lot of people willing to give then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva a second chance to initiate reforms he failed to put in place while in power from 2008-20011 and are bemoaning now to be missing today, such as the proposals by Suthep for police reform (despite being deputy-PM in charge of national security under Abhisit back then) or the sudden embrace for decentralization in form of election of all provincial governors (also not mentioned during the Abhisit premiership).
On Saturday, Democrat Party leader Abhisit lamented “the loss of trust in Thailand’s political system, and respect for political parties and elections.” He didn’t, however, touch on the failure of the Democrat Party in the past decade to effectively adapt to the politics and policies of Thaksin Shinawatra’s government(s) and the changing political landscape. The need for reform of the Democrat Party into a healthy, rational political opposition is evident. However, in the party meetings this past week, with the re-election of Abhisit and Alongkorn Ponlaboot – the party’s most outspoken proponent for reform – effectively sidelined, it showed that the party is unwilling to change itself for now. The boycott decision also shows that it doesn’t even acknowledge that it could have been part of the solution, but instead is becoming part of the problem. The Democrats did not “play the ball back” to caretaker-Prime Minister Yingluck, as Abhisit said. They took the ball and simply popped it.
Whatever their gambit is (most likely creating a political gridlock in order to provoke a military or “judicial” coup), it will hurt the Democrat Party in the long-run. A 2006-style impasse is not possible due to amendments in the election rules that doesn’t require 20 per cent of the vote for a MP candidate in the third by-election round and also due to the fact that, unlike over seven years ago, other opposition parties have not decided on a boycott yet.
Last week, the new secretary-general Juti Krairiksh said that entering the elections would “kill” and a boycott “cripple” the party respectively. Thailand’s Democrat Party chose this weekend to cripple itself and it is doubtful whether or not it can recover in its current form.
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and reports for international news media like Channel NewsAsia. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.