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Demise of the Democrat Party in Thailand

by Joshua Kurlantzick
December 9, 2013

An anti-government protester waves a Thai national flag during a rally at the Royal Plaza near the Government House in Bangkok on December 9, 2013. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Courtesy Reuters) An anti-government protester waves a Thai national flag during a rally at the Royal Plaza near the Government House in Bangkok on December 9, 2013. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Courtesy Reuters)

When I first moved to Thailand, in 1998, the Democrat Party, the oldest continuously-operating party in the kingdom, was in control of the government and was navigating Thailand through the economic reforms necessitated by the Asian financial crisis, which started in Thailand the previous year with the collapse of the baht. Although some of the reforms were unpopular, and the country was hurting badly from the baht’s fall, the collapse of many financial institutions, and the sudden halt in construction, I admired then-Democrat Party leaders like Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai for their willingness to take on hard economic reforms. I also admired many of them for championing Thailand’s 1997 constitution, the most reformist in the kingdom’s history, a landmark document that enshrined a wide range of rights.

Many of my friends in Bangkok at that time—journalists, civil society activists, lawyers, and others who had been involved in the democracy movement since the 1970s—supported the Democrat Party and viewed it as the cleanest and most coherent party in the country. To be sure, there were plenty of political hacks, vote-buyers, and other dark forces operating in the Democrat Party—the Party’s get-out-the-vote operation and political maneuvering in Parliament were managed by Sanan Kachornprasart, then the ultimate Thai political godfather. But Chuan was regarded as personally clean, and the Democrats had a bench of younger politicians and advisers who also appeared altruistic and committed to liberal democracy.

Since then, the Democrat Party’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and Thailand’s future has collapsed. There are still within the party some quality politicians, like Bangkok governor Sukhamband Paribatra, but since the Thai rural working and middle class has become more empowered, the Democrats have become increasingly conservative, elitist, and anti-democratic. This strategy has not helped them win elections, and neither has their incoherent policy positions—they had denounced the populist parties of Thai Rak Thai/Puea Thai but, when running for Parliament in 2011, the Democrats essentially copied these policies.

Now, by resigning from Parliament en masse to join street protests designed to foment anarchy and topple the government, rather than trying to win power through elections, the Democrat Party has reached new lows. (Thomas Fuller has an excellent summary of the situation in here.) The party now seems to exist primarily to work against democratic institutions, and undermine democratic culture. A sad change in fifteen years.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

    As a Thai, I am obliged to give your readers the other side of the story. I cannot defend the Democrat Party; that task will have to be handled by its party members.

    I have the impression that both Joshua and Thomas seem to tolerate all the abuse of power of Thaksin and his cronies. This is to be expected, because Thaksin is still the “champion of the poor Thais” in the eye of the international media. He has done nothing wrong or undemocratic, hasn’t he?

    However, if one is to follow the news in Thailand more carefully, I believe one can find a long list of pending corruption charges against Thaksin and his cronies. And the good news is that the dissolution of the House — not the dissolution of “Parliament”, because the Senate remains unaffected, will not stop the ongoing (utterly slow) investigation of these charges by the Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

    This Office has also accepted a complaint filed by a group of Democrat MPs (before they resigned en masse) to investigate alleged abuse of power and violation of House and Senate rules by 383 Puer Thai MPs and pro-Thaksin Senators (I don’t have the breakdown number; maybe 310 Puer Thai MPs who voted for the bill to amend the Constitution to change rules and procedure of election and selection of Senators.) The bill, after having been rushed through both the House and the Senate under controverisal circumstances, has been struck down by the Constitutional Court. And now these 383 are facing the probe of abuse of power. If found guilty, they face criminal charges and disqualification from elected or government offices for 5 years.
    By the way, one reason for the Democrat MPs to wait for so long was to make sure that their complaint has been formally accepted by the Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. If they were to quit earlier, then their complaint would have been dropped.

    Back to the ongoing confrontation in Bangkok. I would say the magnitude of the historic march on 9 Dec and the diversity of protesters are unprecedented in 81 years of Thai democracy. The Government House has been surrounded. But so far, no violent clashes. PM Yingluck broadcast her decision to request the dissolution of the House from the National Police H.Q.

    What is perplexing is that the protest leader, Suthep Thuagsuban (a former deputy leader of the Democrat Party from the southern province of Surat Thani) has asked for his supporters to keep up the vigil three more days. (I doubt that this is sustainable, considering the huge number of protesters involved.) Now he wants PM Yingluck to also relinguish her role as the caretaker premier during the transition to the general election set for 2 Feb 2014. Puer Thai Party says this is her constitutional role. But I believe if she chooses to request a royal permission to also give up this role, she can.
    This is what Suthep wants to see : a “political vacuum”, so that Article 7 of the Constitution can be applied to the effect that consideration (to find a solution) shall be based on the (Thai) political tradition of democracy with the monarch as the Head of State. In other words, HM the King can step in to appoint a replacement premier, who will oversee the next general election.

    But the problem is Suthep also wants to “uproot the Thaksin Regime” , and the formation of a “people’s assembly” to (not sure to do what?) perhaps to review and revamp the Constitution in order to stop money politics and improve anti-corruption mechanisms.

    I should end here. My other side of the story is getting too long.

    My last word is that we cannot dismiss as “dangerous nonsense” the cut-throat efficiency of voting buying in the provinces, especially in outlaying rural districts. The rural voters are quite malleable. Rural folks in the North and the Northeast used to be ardent admiers of the Royal Family. A large number of them were recruited as anti-communist Village Scouts during the 1970s and 1980s. But they have changed. And I believe they can change again for the better when new generations are better educated and are able to follow what is happening inside Thai politics.

    Money politics is the crux of the whole Thai political crisis.

    Goodluck Thailand!

  • Posted by Marco-polo

    When some Thais write things like: “The rural voters are quite malleable. Rural folks in the North and the Northeast used to be ardent admiers of the Royal Family…. And they can change again for the better when new generations are better educated and are able to follow what is happening inside Thai politics.” …. Is there any wonder why that side keeps losing the rural vote?

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