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In Thailand’s political joust, the Democrats’ demise should be a warning to Pheu Thai

Pheu Thai Party leader Chonlanan Srikaew looks on before the start of a press conference with Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul, at Pheu Thai's headquarters in Bangkok on 7 August, 2023. Photo by Manan Vatsyayana by AFP.

Among the many political dramas now playing out after Thailand’s May general elections is the continued unravelling of the Democrat Party (DP), the country’s oldest.

Thoroughly eclipsed by the progressive Move Forward Party and the populist Pheu Thai, the Democrats won only 25 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives in their worst electoral performance since the party’s establishment in 1946.

The party is now in disarray. Former party leader Jurin Laksanawisit resigned after the polls and now, three months later, the party has repeatedly failed to find a new leader amidst a fierce internal power struggle.

The Democrats’ demise is long in the making. The reasons for this are many – the abandonment of the party’s namesake principles, an unresolved identity crisis woven with inconsistent political stands and the emergence of more hardline conservative parties such as Palang Pracharath and Ruam Thai Sang Chart (UTNP) are to blame for the group’s fatal decline.

This downfall into irrelevance could serve as a doomsday reminder for its former archrival Pheu Thai. The May elections were also the first time in 20 years that Pheu Thai and former shells affiliated with ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra did not come out of the poll as the top party. 

The long-standing electoral champion collected 141 seats as the runner-up to the more youthful Move Forward. Despite winning 151 seats, the reformist party seems likely to be muscled out of the ruling coalition by the military-backed conservative establishment.

Like the Democrats, Pheu Thai is a remnant of the old-fashioned political era. Thaksin and his family – most recently his daughter Paetongtarn – remain central to the party’s political manoeuvring and decision making. In the years past, Pheu Thai has not shown efforts to build itself and refurbish its political branding beyond the Shinawatra clan to adapt to new demographics of the Thai electorate. 

Despite suffering endless cycles of political persecutions, bloody crackdowns on protesting supporters and two military coups ousting its elected government in the past 20 years, Pheu Thai appears to be repeating its own mistakes – and, even worse, walking in the Democrats’ footsteps to failure. 

Former leader of the Democrat Party Jurin Laksanawisit enters the Thai Parliament in Bangkok before the second round of parliamentary voting to decide the country’s next prime minister on 19 July, 2023. Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha for AFP.

Heeding the conservative camp’s relentless endeavour to block Move Forward and its charismatic leader Pita Limjaroenrat from forming a government, Pheu Thai recently jumped ship from the progressive-led coalition pact and has optimistically established a new coalition with the would-be kingmaker Bhumjaithai Party. 

They’ll start with a combined 238 seats in the lower house along with Chart Thai Pattana Party, another junior partner. But they’re still far behind the 376 seats required for the simple majority threshold in the House of Representatives’ joint session with the unelected 250-member Senate. 

Such a number can never be reached unless the Pheu Thai-Bhumjaithai coalition brings in other conservative and military-affiliated parties alike, including the Democrats, the UTN and Palang Pracharath.

The latter two have ex-junta leaders Prayut Chan-ocha and Prawit Wongsuwon as patriarchs, respectively. It is especially note-worthy that Prayut and Prawit still have political influence on the senators handpicked by them when they were heads of the now-defunct junta National Council for Peace and Order.

Let alone reconciling with ultra-conservative and military-affiliated parties, even Pheu Thai’s infamous “mint-choc” partnership with Bhumjaithai appears problematic. The party was only formed in late 2008 by founder Newin Chidchobas through a sudden turn from Pheu Thai’s predecessor pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party.

Newin, an-ex minister in Thaksin’s government famously told the populist senior politician: “It’s over, boss!” before leading a number of like-minded parliamentarians to leave the party, form Bhumjaithai and join former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrats to form an unpopular government in 2009. In the eyes of Pheu Thai and Redshirt supporters even until recent elections, Bhumjaithai has always been untrustworthy and a symbol of betrayal. 

During the street protest in May 2010, it was Abhisit who ordered a bloody crackdown on the protesters killing at least 90 people and injuring more than 2000. Although the Thai court already dismissed all the charges against Abhisit, Redshirts still demand accountability from the Democrats. 

Equally important, after the 2014 military coup ousted the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the resulting junta arrested and detained several Pheu Thai supporters for protesting the takeover. Some activists, including academics, reporters and commentators fled the country for fear of being arrested and jailed. Several years later, justice is still remotely far for them.

Redshirt supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra shout slogans as they protest at the 11th Infantry Barracks in Bangkok on 28 March, 2010. Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and anti-government protesters edged closer to landmark talks aimed at ending two weeks of mass rallies. Photo by Pornchai Kittiwongsakul for AFP.

Looming large over Pheu Thai’s unpopular hedging position is Thaksin’s planned return to Thailand after 15 years in exile. With his daughter Paetongtarn likely one of Pheu Thai’s prime-ministerial candidates, the 74-year-old is still a big factor for the party. Rumours have that he had struck a deal with the pro-establishment camp to form a government without Move Forward and abandon the latter’s agendas – such as reforming the lèse-majesté law, which prohibits speech deemed critical of the monarchy – in exchange for leniency upon his eventual return home.

If the rumour is true or Pheu Thai managed to form a government without Move Forward, the modern-day politics of Thailand have nearly completed a full circle. 

From mid-2000s to 2014, conservative camps used all means at their disposal, including two military coups, to stamp out Thaksin, his proxy parties and allies from the centre of power. After almost a decade under junta rule and elected but military-friendly governments, a far-left camp emerged under the late Future Forward and the current Move Forward parties to become a new opponent of the pro-establishment camp. 

To block this emerging rival from taking office, Thaksin is recast overnight as not that bad at all. His former enemies and rivals have even spoken highly of him, or at least described him as a lesser evil.

However, if this is the case, Pheu Thai can review the Democrats’ demise as a crystal ball showing its destiny yet to come.

The Democrats’ miscalculated disrespect of the electorate in the 2000s, along with its cooperation with the military in an attempt to wipe out the so-called Thaksin regime and later joining a military-friendly coalition in 2019 all played a significant role in its self-destruction. 

It might be still too early to evaluate if Pheu Thai’s departure from the original eight-party coalition to join hands with the conservative parties is rational and well-calculated.The party, however, still needs to very carefully explain its reasoning to its supporters. 

In the case of a government that excludes Move Forward, Pheu Thai still has a chance – perhaps a dwindling one – to introduce popular policies from the less-controversial progressive agenda.

Otherwise, the Democrats’ past might be the future of Pheu Thai. The Thai public, which voted for Move Forward and Pheu Thai and against the conservative style of national governance, is growing less patient and tolerant to any breaking of electoral promises or political flip-flopping. 

Maybe the ultimate question is how a Pheu Thai-led government would respond to possible massive street protests by Move Forward supporters. Would it trigger a military crackdown as the Democrat-led government did to Pheu Thai supporters in 2010? Only time will tell.

Sek Sophal holds a Master degree in Asia Pacific Studies from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. He is a researcher at the Center for Democracy Promotion, Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies, as well as a contributing writer for Southeast Asia Globe.

Chhengpor Aun is a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is also a graduate student in the Master of International Affairs Programme at the Hertie School in Berlin.

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