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Analysis, Opinion

The death of Thailand’s oldest party

If the Democrats join the pro-military government, it could spell the end for the party.


Written by

Updated: May 21, 2019

They say that the pursuit of democracy is a Sisyphean ordeal, a never-ending task that must be kept at and pursued constantly.

The Democrat Party, the country’s oldest, would have you believe that it has, through its long history, been the champion of Thai democracy – that it has fought valiantly against the impulses of totalitarianism whenever they occurred.

Yesterday, the pro-junta, pro-military Palang Pracharat Party said it had convinced the Bhumjaithai Party and the Democrats to join a coalition which would allow it to form a government.

If this proves to be true, then the Democrat Party will no longer exist.

It would no longer serve the illusory purpose its proponents claim was its birthright; after all, how can one defend democracy when one sides with the same people that took it away?

It would not even be able to serve as the reactionary, conservative force in Thai politics that the party’s critics have long accused it of being. Why vote for a stand-in for the armed, entrenched powers of Thai conservatism when one can just vote for the military outright?

A self-inflicted wound

Observers may feel a modicum of pity for the new leadership of the Democrat Party and the decisions it faces.

Either side with the military government and prove the critics right, or side with the pro-democracy voters and risk losing the few voters it has left.

But that pity should evaporate quickly when assessing what the party has done over the past 10 years.

Just over a decade ago, the Democrat Party was in power. Led by the young, well-spoken and Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, the party came to power after a military coup deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and street protests and conservative constitutional rulings disbanded Thaksin’s party and banned his allies from politics.

That the Democrats’ ascent was improbable was a given. That it was malicious requires only a small stretch of the imagination.

But what is certainly not a conspiracy theory is that once in power, the Democrats did little to bridge the political divide that was beginning to tear the fabric of Thai society.

Under the Old Etonian Abhisit, the Democrat Party ignored the grievances of pro-Thaksin protesters, let the situation deteriorate due to mismanagement, and then called in tanks and soldiers to clear the streets.

Under the command of Prayut Chan-o-cha, now prime minister and coup leader, the Army’s heavy hand left over 90 people dead on both sides.

Fast forward 

When elections were finally held in 2011, the Democrat Party – and Abhisit – lost heavily.

Thaksin’s sister Yingluck became prime minister and the Democrat Party once again, as it always has after elections this millennium, found itself in opposition.

When Yingluck was overthrown by the military in 2014, the party said it was against the seizure of power, as it says after every coup.

But it seemed the population was no longer interested in buying what the Democrats were selling.

A cursory glance on social media and message boards will reveal that most people did not believe that the Democrats were against the coup or were in any way anti-junta.

After all, the former Democrat deputy PM Suthep Thaugsuban and many senior Democrat leaders took central roles in the street protests that gave the military the excuse it needed to launch a coup.

A hard decision

Which leads us to today.

Many of the Democrat leaders who ran the street protests rejoined the party and were candidates in this year’s elections.

The populace, either seeking a true force for democracy or wanting to vote for the military outright, shunned the party at the polls leading to its biggest electoral loss in years.

Now, if the leaders of the party decide to form a government with the military, the veneer of its self-promoted pro-democracy, anti-totalitarian proselytising will be stripped away.

It will be replaced by a cynical leadership that capitalises on the party’s storied history while betraying it constantly.

Younger Democrats who are truly pro-democracy will likely move away, undermining the party’s future. Or stay on and become cogs in the party machine, their ideals forgotten.

It didn’t have to be like this for Thailand’s oldest party.

But if this is indeed the end, then very few people will shed any tears.



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About the Author: ANN’s current Chairman is Mr Warren Fernandez, who is also Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times, Singapore. He is the current President of the World Editors Forum.

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